Trigger/Content Warnings: Depression, Suicide
Background/Notes: I’ve read this book twice, once in 2015 and once this year (2016).
My Summary: The Lees are a mixed race family (white and Asian) of five living in small-town Ohio. When middle child and family favorite Lydia is found dead in the lake, they are forced to confront all of the things that they have been hiding from one another and even repressing in themselves and find a way to move on from the tragedy of their losses.
Some spoilers ahead, so be warned!
The beauty of this book is how well-drawn and complex the characters are. They each struggle with something and make mistakes, and their struggles are shaped by their positionality in their family and their society at large. The narrative explores their experiences with being “othered” or overlooked because of people’s biases, explicit or otherwise, including microaggressions. It also deftly portrays the intersections of race and gender and class.
For example, James Lee is a second generation Chinese American, the son of Chinese immigrants who work as custodial and lunch staff at his boarding school. Understanding the hostility toward people whose differences stand out, he feels the compulsion to assimilate into American culture and pursues this relentlessly. However, he continually falls short of blending in because of his race, which he cannot change.
Marilyn Lee, who is white, does not struggle with race directly as much as she does gender. She excelled at math and science in high school and had high hopes for becoming a doctor and escaping/defying the oppressive, misogynistic expectations of the society around her and her own mother. Meeting James transforms her life in positive ways, but her unplanned pregnancy and marriage thwart her progress toward becoming a doctor.
These two tortured souls then project their failed aspirations on their children, especially Lydia, and that is what ultimately leads to the crumbling of their family and the central conflicts of the novel.
The narrative isn’t linear in its chronology. It jumps forward and backward in time, but this structure works well because it exposes the complex web of cause and effect driving the events of the novel. What seems like a localized issue of a particular moment is actually a repercussion from earlier events.
All of that said, this book gave me A Lot of Feelings for various reasons relating to my personal experiences.
Fact #1: I am the middle child in an Asian American family of five (not mixed though).
Fact #2: Because I graduated valedictorian of my high school and neither of my sisters did, I was pegged as the one who would be the most successful out of us three kids.
Fact #3: I have depression and anxiety and experience suicidal thoughts.
Fact #4: I cannot swim. I took lessons, but they didn’t result in much. I was 12 at the time and already too scared to truly learn without inhibitions.
The combination of these facts made me immediately empathize with Lydia’s character. I also confess I had a morbid fascination with finding out how exactly she died. She drowned, but since there was no sign of foul play, suicide was ruled the most likely probability by the police. (The book eventually reveals exactly how she died, toward the end, and I won’t spoil that.)
Lydia struggled with a physics class and got horrible grades for the first time. I went through something similar with my first engineering class in university.
Lydia felt intense pressure to succeed. I did (and still do). Although my parents never told me to pursue any particular major or career, I still felt obligated to pick something conventional and stable with high prestige.
Thus, when I found out she died by drowning, [presumably] by suicide…I looked at the book and thought: This could be me. (And even now, I’m honestly terrified that it might be.) Reading it felt like a wake-up call to change something about my life before I end up sharing Lydia’s presumed fate. It was also an earnest reminder to strive to be truthful and mindful with my family.
Recommendation: This story is an emotional rollercoaster ride, and if you’re okay with having your heart torn out, read it and suffer/enjoy it with the rest of us.