Chapter six

Summary: Part 1

The story jumps back to the summer Marilyn went missing and Lydia fell in the lake. James continually checks in with the police, even though Marilyn had packed a suitcase. James hides in his study while Lydia and Nathan watch television all day and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and dinner. Every day, James pieces together Marilyn’s ripped-up note, which he had found. James thinks Marilyn has left him because she regrets having an interracial marriage. A neighbor, Mrs. Allen, asks about Marilyn’s absence. James assures his children that their missing mother is not their fault. 

One day, Nathan goes outside, and Jack offers him candy and tells him he will be okay without his mom because Jack’s mom has said that kids only need one parent. This statement makes Nathan angry. A few days later, Nathan’s life changes when he sees the Gemini 9 launch. When Nathan tries to talk to James about space, James, caught up in his own pain, slaps Nathan. But this event doesn’t stop Nathan’s passion. Meanwhile, Lydia reads through her mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook. Lydia promises herself that if her mother returns, she will do everything her mother wants.

Summary: Part 2

In Toledo, Marilyn tries to stay focused on finishing her degree, but she misses her family. When she faints a few times, she realizes her period is late and goes to the emergency room where she learns she’s pregnant. The hospital contacts James, and he soon arrives, happy to take Marilyn home. Marilyn now understands that she cannot continue her studies and will not go to medical school. Instead, she decides to pour all her frustrated ambition into Lydia. Lydia deliberately loses the cookbook that has made her mother sad, and Marilyn stops preparing homemade food. Feeling ignored and upset, Nathan goes to the lake, followed by Lydia. Impulsively, he pushes Lydia into the water. Unable to swim, Lydia goes under and feels somehow relieved. When Nathan rescues her, Lydia sees him as the person she can rely on. Games at a beginning-of-the-school-year picnic highlight James’s disappointment in Nathan for being socially awkward.

Analysis: Chapter six

The theme of the past's inescapable influence on the present is showcased in this chapter. Marilyn's absence is inexplicable to her children, but not to James. The note she leaves to be reconstructed, itself a symbol of someone piecing together a loved one's past, provides some measure of explanation. But even as James reads the note over and over, there are gaps in his understanding of the impetus behind Marilyn’s actions. James and Marilyn both intended to abandon their respective pasts when they got married, but doing so has proven impossible. By pledging to forget their pasts, they do a disservice to their own lives and the lives of their children, and their refusal to reckon with and learn from what they've been through has painful consequences. Marilyn regretted not finishing her degree, but because she didn’t address her regret and make her needs known to James, her frustration eventually culminated in her leaving her family. By repressing her needs in the hopes of creating a new future, she really only buried them beneath a façade of happiness, making it inevitable she would have to deal with them eventually. In the same way, James never dealt with his feelings of shame and alienation, allowing them to fester while hoping to create his ideal life by doing everything “right.” The pain and disappointment that they both carried into their relationship was never addressed or healed; it was only repressed, waiting to be dealt with.  

The complex and sometimes fraught nature of journeys is highlighted throughout the chapter, and an important parallel is drawn between the Gemini 9 launch and Marilyn's departure to Toledo to pursue the life she wanted. Both departures are filled with promise, but neither is fulfilled. Marilyn is invigorated by her decision to leave but is forced to return home when she discovers her new pregnancy. Nath is thrilled about the idea of space exploration, yet when he shares his little-boy enthusiasm with his father, James hits him, and going forward, Nath keeps his interests hidden. Combined with the push and pull of his relationship with Lydia, Nath begins a trajectory away from his family. He wants to leave and put a plan in place to do so, even as he craves encouragement from his family. For many years, he is simply a satellite orbiting Lydia, and she is the only person who understands the equilibrium he provides against the crushing weight of the expectations of their mother.

Lydia's journey is also a complicated one, and the grief and pain that she cannot express as a child will, over time, overwhelm her. Seeing her mother's cookbook as a talisman, she makes a deal with herself about her mother's return. It is within the context of that promise that Marilyn begins to mold Lydia into the image of what she herself hoped to be. Marilyn's excitement about building a brilliant little girl in her own image is inescapable. In her fervor to break the cycle of her own disappointment, she ceases to pay attention to Lydia's wants and needs. Because she is bound by the promise she made in trade for Marilyn's return, Lydia doesn't feel that she can renege, nor is she able to voice her concerns. It is only in tandem with the occasional distraction that Nath provides that Lydia is able to accomplish what she does. The danger of silence is emphasized again by Lydia's near drowning and the continued lack of communication about what she needs for her own life. Lydia's promise, ultimately, cannot be fulfilled, and will result in the tragic end of her own journey.