The themes of racism and feminism are woven through this lovely but sad novel. Raised by a mother who feels she sacrificed her life and academic talents to marriage and children, and who lays all of her frustrated ambitions onto her daughter, Lydia feels the enormous weight of her mother’s expectations. Her Chinese father senses that he has never fit into American life, and he wants desperately for his daughter to pass, to be normal and popular. Each parent unintentionally puts tremendous, but in some ways opposite, pressure on Lydia, and she staggers under the weight of trying to do for her parents what each feel they failed to do for themselves.
Lydia has an older brother, Nath, who somehow slips through the net of expectations that entangle Lydia. Only Nath understands what Lydia is going through, and yet he cannot quite rid himself of resentment towards her, since everything, always, seems to be about Lydia. Neither parent seems to notice that it is he who has the true love of science and learning, and so his talents are largely ignored by both parents. More and more, Lydia, who is in fact friendless, but talks to imaginary girlfriends on the phone to convince her dad that she is happy and popular, depends on her older brother for support and friendship. But he is soon to leave for college, and is eager to escape living in the shadow of Lydia, and the disappointments of the parents that both children feel.
At one point, the mother finally (and briefly) wrests herself from the family and takes up the scientific studies abandoned when she married a Chinese grad student and quickly had two children. She seems to have the academic skills her daughter cannot quite muster, and although an older student, is doing very well in her studies until she realizes that she is once again pregnant, and dispiritedly rejoins the family that she has abandoned.
Lydia, confused and frightened by her mother’s disappearance, vows to do everything her mother wants of her when she returns in order to keep her from running away again. So eager to please her mother, she never confesses that she feels overwhelmed by and unable to live up to the high expectations placed on her. Marilyn, Lydia’s mother, gives up her own academic dreams, but made plans for Lydia,
Books she would buy Lydia. Science fair projects. Summer classes. ‘Only if you’re interested’ She meant it every time, but she did not realize she was holding her breath. Lydia did. Yes, she said, every time. Yes. Yes. And her mother would breathe again…Yale admitted women, then Harvard. The nation learned new words: affirmative action; Equal Rights Amendment. In her mind, Marilyn spun out Lydia’s future in one long golden thread, the future she was positive her daughter wanted, too: Lydia in high heels and a white coat, a stethoscope round her neck; Lydia bent over an operating table, a ring of men awed at her deft handiwork. Every day, it seemed more possible.
And meanwhile, her father who feels he has lowered himself by accepting his small college position, and who feels always out of step with his peers,
“… mulling over the slights of the day… Only when he reached home and saw Lydia did the bitter smog dissipate. For her, he thought, everything would be different. She would have friends… She would be poised and confident, she would say ‘Afternoon Vivian,’ and look right at her neighbor with those big blue eyes. Every day, the thought grew more precious.
And every day, Lydia feels more desperate, more unequal to the task before her. And now her only support, Nath, is about to leave home, escape from the frustrated hopes and dreams of their parents into a life of his own. He alone realizes the desperate situation of his sister. “That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much.” Finally, looking forward to what he sees as the start of his own life, “Dreaming of his future, he no longer heard all the things she did not say…He had been the only one listening for so long. Since their mother’s disappearance and return, Lydia had been friendless.”
All in all, this is a sad little book, but so beautifully written, and by an author who understands so intimately what she is writing about. She understands the father who never fits in and so wants his daughter to do what he cannot, understands the mother who puts all of her frustrated hopes onto her daughter.
And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.
There is also an element of mystery in the novel as the story of Lydia’s disappearance unfolds. But I’m not about to reveal the mystery; you will have to read the novel to see how the mystery unravels.