The Unknowability of Other People
The central tension in Lydia's death, which starts off the book, is how little her family knew about her. Her parents believed her to be easygoing and happy, but as the book unfolds, it becomes clear that she was sad and lonely, struggling academically and socially in school. Even as her parents figure out some mysteries, they still assume things incorrectly. When they find cigarettes and condoms, it seems as though Lydia was smoking and having sex. In reality, she did not have sex and had begun smoking only very recently. The book is marked by the many secrets people keep from one another.
The Burden of Expectations
Marilyn's journey as a mother was interrupted when she disappeared for nine weeks after her mother's death. She was upset because she realized that she was what her mother would have wanted her to be: a homemaker without a career. Then, as a mother herself, she pushes Lydia as an attempt to live vicariously through her. Marilyn's academic expectations are too much for Lydia, create distance between the two, and lead to Lydia's increasingly difficult life. When Nath is accepted into Harvard, Lydia hides his acceptance letter: she is afraid of this level of expectation and does not want to increase the burden her parents place on her.
The family's problems are often related to their status as a mixed-race couple. In the present day, the community is estranged from them. When they got married, Marilyn's mother was enraged because James is Asian. When Marilyn temporarily runs away from the family, James believes it is because Marilyn wants to distance from the burden of being in an Asian family. Then, when James has an affair with a Chinese student, he tells Marilyn that he thinks she is resentful that he and their children are Chinese. Lydia is also an outsider at her school and feels uncomfortable; as a result, she tries to have sex with her neighbor Jack. Jack, it turns out, is also an outsider, because he is gay and in love with Nath.
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