Lydia Lee, favoured daughter of James and Marilyn Lee, sister to Hannah and Nathan, intelligent, beautiful and perfect in her parents’ eyes, is dead. A non-swimmer, Lydia is found floating in the lake. Her parents immediately blame an outsider. But Lydia, it turns out, is not what she seemed.
In small town Ohio in the 1970s, the Lees are an anomaly. James is Chinese – Marilyn is white. Growing up, James was often the object of ridicule, and as an adult he still acutely feels the pain of being ostracized. James put all his efforts into his education, and he excelled. But what James wants now for his daughter is popularity and conformity – he wants her to fit in.
Like James, Marilyn excelled in school. In university, she was often the only woman in her science classes. Men never took her seriously, but Marilyn persisted. But pregnancy changed all that. Now a mother of three, Marilyn desperately wants Lydia to succeed where she failed.
Both parents badger Lydia constantly about school and friendships. She is signed up for accelerated science classes, given pretty dresses and told to go to the dance. As the pressure mounts, Lydia becomes more and more dishonest about who she really is. She just can’t maintain the perfection that her parents expect.
Each family member’s story is slowly revealed as the novel goes on. Nathan is a lover of astronomy and an excellent student. When he is accepted to Harvard, his parents barely notice. Nathan is also a very perceptive brother. He sees the pressure that Lydia is under and offers his comfort and sympathy.
Hannah is younger and creeps about like a cat. She has grown up being ignored. She has become silent and watchful, with an uncanny understanding of her elders.
In Lydia’s case, her unhappiness ultimately leads to her death. But was it suicide? Was she lured to the lake by the undesirable boy she’s been hanging out with? Each family member pursues their own leads. In the end, despite their dysfunctionality, Ng offers hope that this family can, somehow, make amends.
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