Chapter one

Summary: Part 1

The story begins on May 3, 1977, with the announcement that sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is dead, but no one in her family knows this yet. They only know she is late for breakfast, her bed is fully made, and she is not at school. Lydia’s studious older brother Nathan, who is going to Harvard in the fall, says that he heard Lydia playing music in her room the night before at 11:30 p.m. Her younger sister Hannah, who is in fifth grade and quietly notices everything, wonders if Lydia has been kidnapped. Her mother, Marilyn who searches throughout the house for Lydia, worries the same. Marilyn reminds herself that things like this don’t happen in a small college town like Middlewood, Ohio. 

It is noted that Lydia has the same blue eyes as her mother and that this is only one of the reasons Lydia is her parents’ favorite child. Nathan and Hannah look like their Chinese American father, James. That morning in his office, James, a forty-six-year-old tenured professor of American history, corrects papers. His twenty-three-year-old Asian teaching assistant, Louisa Chen, stops by his office. James gets an anxious phone call from Marilyn requesting he come home.

Summary: Part 2

The police tell the Lees that teenagers often go missing and return home safely. In talking with James, Officer Fiske references the time Marilyn went missing about ten years earlier. To aid their search, James gives the officers a photo of Lydia from her sixteenth birthday the week before. Marilyn and James also provide the names of Lydia’s friends. But Nathan knows Lydia has no friends and is just pretending for her parents’ sake. Nathan is suspicious of their neighbor Jack, who Lydia has been secretly driving around with after school. Nathan hates Jack for his carefree behavior and for humiliating him them when they were younger. And now he is certain that Jack is connected to Lydia’s disappearance. Hannah looks through a book she had stolen from Lydia several weeks before, which Lydia hadn’t come looking for. 

The next afternoon, people in town notice an empty rowboat in the middle of the town lake. When the police ask the Lees whether Lydia might have gone out in the rowboat, the Lees say no because Lydia can’t swim. But on Thursday morning, the police drag the lake and find Lydia’s dead body.

Analysis: Chapter one

Who is Lydia Lee? is the question at the heart of the novel, and as the book opens, it becomes clear that no one knows the answer. As Lydia’s parents wonder what happened to her, clues emerge that the daughter they imagined her to be is not the person she truly was. Marilyn exhaustively searching the house for Lydia is symbolic of her complete failure to understand or know her daughter. To Marilyn, the idea that Lydia could be outside of the house (and therefore outside of Marilyn’s purview) is unimaginable; it makes more sense to Marilyn that Lydia must be hiding behind a shower curtain or inside the refrigerator. Lydia has existed her entire life as a construct in her parents' minds, and their inability to see her for who she is detracts from their ability to comprehend her disappearance.

The use of multiple perspectives throughout the narrative creates a kind of mosaic of Lydia, constructed from the limited understanding of her that each character had. Her father, James, sees her as a blue-eyed girl who acts as a bridge between his Chinese heritage, which has always made him feel like an outsider, and the white America he has always longed to belong to. He views her as capable of fitting in like he never could and believes that she has the chance to be “normal” in a way that was never possible for him. Her mother Marilyn, on the other hand, sees Lydia as the opposite of normal. She views Lydia as an extraordinary girl that stands out both in her talents and her ambitions, and Marilyn projects onto Lydia all the ambitions she failed to realize herself. Even Lydia’s closest ally, Nath, does not fully understand her, and mistakes her relationship with Jack as romantic. Each of these characters sees Lydia through the lens of what they need and want her to be, but they never fully know her.