Chapter seven

Summary: Part 1

Ten years after Marilyn disappeared, Lydia continues to feel the pressure of trying to make her parents happy. James, who suffers daily slights for being Chinese, hopes Lydia will succeed socially in ways that he has not. Marilyn plots out Lydia’s future as a doctor. Lydia hides the fact that she is failing physics. She recalls the moment when she might have been included socially at school but chose to go home to her mother instead. Lydia relies on Nathan for understanding and support. He, in turn, is increasingly absorbed in learning about space and his plans to leave everything behind. Worried about Nathan leaving her, Lydia hides his early acceptance letter from Harvard. Nathan finally finds out about his acceptance when Jack brings him a letter that was accidentally delivered to Jack’s house. James is proud that his son is going to Harvard, but when Lydia confesses that she’s failing physics, she becomes the central focus again. Nathan feels upset that his parents care more about Lydia than him.

Summary: Part 2

Lydia and Nathan make up, and Lydia remembers when Nathan used James’s shoe to kill a spider on the ceiling, leaving a footprint that Lydia covered over with whiteout. At Christmas, Lydia’s parents give her books, including How to Win Friends and Influence People, that confirm their expectations of her. The story then skips back to thirteen-year-old Lydia’s failed effort to be social, which led to her pretending to have friends by talking on the phone to no one. Now at fifteen, Lydia recalls another social humiliation to which her father contributed. In physics, Jack and Lydia connect over failing the class. To hurt Nathan for leaving her to go to college, Lydia decides to befriend Jack by asking him to give her a ride home. In his car, Jack and Lydia smoke cigarettes and talk honestly. Jack notes that Lydia and Nathan are the only Chinese American students at their high school. Lydia observes that people decide what they think about someone before getting to know them.

Analysis: Chapter seven

A decade after she made the promise to be the perfect daughter in exchange for her mother's return, Lydia has painted herself into a miserable corner. Because her family never talks about the issues that have created irreparable cracks in their foundation, Lydia is incapable of speaking up for herself. Lydia smiles when asked, goes where expected, and excels academically, all in the service of keeping her mother happy—because if her mother is happy, Lydia reasons, then she won't leave again. Nath, having grown up in Lydia's shadow, understands his place in the family hierarchy. Because Lydia can't or won't give voice to what she wants and needs, Nath continues his trajectory away from the family, away from his orbit of Lydia. Like her mother, Lydia attempts to make peace with the life she is living, even though she cannot help but chafe against the restrictions. The difference is that she is the victim in this cycle, and Marilyn is the perpetrator of crushing expectations. Lydia’s unhappiness spirals inward, becoming harder and harder to overcome. 

Lydia's unhappiness has led her to rely on Nath's presence as a kind of release valve, but this is an unsustainable arrangement. Growing up, Lydia always had her brother to talk to, or, at the very least, to share a bond with over the insular strangeness of their family. As she becomes aware that Nath will leave her, a kind of panic sets in. In an attempt to wrest some control over her life, she admits that she is failing physics, undermining Nath's news of his acceptance to Harvard and putting him back in Lydia's shadow. This incident only serves to widen the fractures among the members of the Lee family and threaten the uneasy stability that has been built on the back of a teenage girl. 

Lydia’s father's Christmas gift to her demonstrates his unrealistic expectations for her as well as his inability to understand her needs. Marilyn lives vicariously through Lydia in order to accomplish her own ambitions, and so does James, who views Lydia as a conduit for achieving American normality. He believes that her blue eyes, to some degree, are a kind of pathway to the assimilation he has always yearned for. By giving her the book, instead of something that she would like, James is perpetuating a narrative that he has created in his head, one involving an imagined Lydia who is surrounded by friends and capable of navigating white, middle-class America in a way that James never could. As happens repeatedly throughout the narrative, the inability to communicate their needs and desires silos the members of the Lee family, walling them away from each other and rendering them strangers to one another.