Chapter two

Summary: Part 1

The story jumps back to the 1950s and focuses on Marilyn’s years in school. Unlike many women of the time period, Marilyn has ambitions to be a doctor. In high school, Marilyn asks to take shop class instead of home economics. The principle denies Marilyn’s request, so Marilyn deliberately sabotages her home economic assignments. Marilyn’s single mother, Doris Walker, has been teaching the home economics class since her husband abandoned the family. Despite this, Doris keeps up the home and her appearance of a prim 1950s housewife. When Marilyn is accepted at Radcliffe, her mother sees this as an opportunity for Marilyn to meet eligible Harvard men. 

At Radcliffe, Marilyn takes an introductory physics class and becomes a top student in the class despite being underestimated by her professor and thwarted by other male students. In her junior year, Marilyn takes The Cowboy in American Culture class taught by James Lee, a fourth-year graduate student. Marilyn visits James in his office. Finding herself attracted to him, especially because he understands what it feels like to be different, Marilyn kisses him. Certain that she wants him in her life, she drops his class so they can become lovers.

Summary: Part 2

James is attracted to the way Marilyn blends in and seems to belong. Growing up Chinese American in a country that strictly limited Chinese emigration, James never feels he fits in. When his parents take maintenance jobs at Lloyd Academy, a boarding school in Iowa, James passes the school entrance exam and receives a free private school education. But despite his many years at Lloyd and then Harvard and his efforts to learn about American culture, James still feels like an outsider. His relationship with Marilyn finally makes him feel at home. They make plans to marry. James hopes to be given a position in Harvard’s history department and Marilyn plans to continue studying for medical school. Their plans are upended, however, when Harvard doesn’t offer James the position and Marilyn finds out she’s pregnant. James accepts a position at Middlewood College, and Marilyn puts her dreams aside. 

Marilyn’s mother travels from Virginia, where interracial marriage is still illegal in 1958, for the wedding. She feels unhappy when she learns that Marilyn is marrying a Chinese man. The wedding is the last time Marilyn sees her mother.

Analysis: Chapter two

Marilyn has always yearned to be exceptional, to stand out, and to be recognized for her extraordinary abilities. In the face of restrictive gender norms and institutionalized sexism, her interests read as rebellion. Despite her obvious talents and intelligence, the attempts she makes to realize her goal of becoming a doctor are met at best with confusion and at worst with outright hostility. The American ideal of womanhood in the 1950s is stereotypical and extremely limiting, a true foil for Marilyn to push against and set herself in opposition to. Her scientific acumen, she believes, will allow her to escape the role that is expected of her: a submissive wife, mother, and homemaker. It is her determination to rebel against what is expected that draws Marilyn to James. He is an other, someone whose very existence is a deviation from the norm of middle-class, white America that Marilyn wants to avoid. Loving and marrying James is a way for her to distinguish herself and to stand apart from other people, especially her mother.

Conversely, James fervently wants to belong to normal, middle-class America and has done everything he can to blend in, a goal which ultimately proves impossible. Deeply aware of the difference between his parents' ethnicity and the ethnicity of everyone around him, he strives to assimilate. He embraces white American culture, he distances himself from his working-class parents, and he tries (unsuccessfully) to overcome the deeply felt belief that he does not belong. At all times, he is painfully aware of himself as an other. Even James’ academic pursuits of Americana in the form of cowboys only serve to highlight how different he is from the subjects of his lectures, rather than to demonstrate his understanding of what it means to be American. While Marilyn sees James as a partner who will help her distinguish herself from other middle-class white women, James sees her as the opposite: a wife who will help him belong to and blend in with normal, middle-class white America.