The novel switches between timelines, during which we as readers follow different characters.
We start in 1977. A girl named Lydia is dead at the bottom of a lake. At her family's house, it is breakfast time and no one can find her. Her mother, Marilyn, becomes afraid something is wrong. Her father, James, is in his office and does not know that Lydia is missing until Marilyn calls him. The police insinuate that she has run away and will come home within twenty-four hours; they bring up Marilyn's disappearance eleven years before, which James disregards. Lydia's parents write a list of people they need to call and talk to, while her older brother, Nath, watches, knowing the list is wrong. He knows that Lydia's only friend was a neighbor named Jack. Eventually, after an empty rowboat is seen in the middle of the lake and the police learn that Lydia could not swim, her body is found at the bottom of the lake.
The book jumps to 1955, when Marilyn meets James at Harvard. She wants to be a doctor, and he is a professor of American culture, specializing in cowboys. She is drawn to him immediately and describes him as the first Asian person she has seen. He attended Harvard for both undergraduate and graduate school, and always had problems fitting in as a Chinese student. Marilyn gets pregnant, and the two decide to get married. Marilyn stops speaking to her mother because she opposes the marriage for racist reasons.
As the narrative unfolds back in 1977, Nath's distaste for Jack becomes clear. After Lydia's memorial service, her brother tries to question Jack and implicate him in her death. Nath later hears Jack talk to the police and listens in as Jack explains that Lydia was upset about her poor grades. As we learn more about the end of Lydia's life, it becomes clear that both parents were projecting their anxieties onto Lydia in particular. James wanted her to fit in because he never did, and Marilyn wanted her to become a doctor because she herself couldn't.
Each member of the family deals with Lydia's death in their own way. Marilyn reflects on how little she knew about her daughter, while James sleeps with a graduate student named Louisa. Nath feels frustration and guilt about the situation.
The book jumps again, this time to 1966. James and Marilyn have two kids at this time: Lydia, who is five, and Nath. When Marilyn goes to her mother's house in Virginia after she dies, she realizes that she has become like her mother—a homemaker—and decides to leave her family to pursue a medical degree.
Back in 1977, the Lee family talks to the police and news media. Marilyn continues to believe that Lydia was not sad and is displeased with external characterizations of Lydia as lonely. One day at the lake, Hannah, Lydia's younger sister, stops Nath from punching Jack. Nath tells Hannah that he had once pushed Lydia into the very lake where she drowned.
In the continuing narrative of 1966, Marilyn tries to finish her schooling, and James and the kids struggle without her. After nine difficult weeks, Marilyn discovers she is pregnant for the third time and returns to James and the kids. Upon returning, Marilyn starts an obsession with Lydia's science career, and the attention on Lydia enrages Nath. Lydia wants to please her mom to keep her from leaving again and decides she will do what Marilyn wants. Later, at the lake, Nath pushes Lydia in but brings her back to shore—an event they do not share with their parents at this time.
Then, in 1976, Lydia's parents push her to be a social and academic model of their own desires. Lydia finds a letter from Harvard accepting Nath and hides it, driven by her fear and sadness. Eventually, Nath gets another acceptance letter, and the...
(The entire section is 992 words.)