The narrator of the book examines each character, bringing them to life, exposing their secrets and the family dynamics of their relationships with each other. It is a sad book about the Lee family, and from the get-go it has a tragic persona. In 1957, James Lee, an American of Chinese background, is teaching a course on the history of cowboys. Marilyn is a Caucasian student in his lecture class and she is smitten with him. She soon drops the course to pursue him.
James was retiring and kept to himself. He was weary of the slights he had often been subjected to because of how he looked, because of his background, because he was different. Chinese people were not a common sight where he was brought up or where he chose to eventually work. James truly had one wish, to blend in and belong. Because his parents worked in janitorial and kitchen services at a prestigious school, James was allowed to take the test to get in, and he passed. He was bright, and he received a superb education there and then in Harvard.
Before she went to college, Marilyn attended the neighborhood high school where her mother taught. In my day, the course she taught used to be called Home Economics. It was a class that taught young girls how to become successful young women, how to fit into society. This meant learning how to cook, sew and clean in order to keep a proper home for a husband and family. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor, not a hausfrau. Marilyn, unlike James, wanted to stand out and be unique. Both James and Marilyn resented their parents because of their ambitions for them and because of what they did for a living. Marilyn detested everything her mother stood for, and James was ashamed of his parent’s duties in his school, which along with his looks brought undue attention to him.
The book concerns itself with the racial discrimination of the times and also the discrimination of women in the work place. It is about the travails of being different and trying to fit in, it is about the place of women in society. It is about a time when women attended college and university to earn their MRS, to marry someone of a good, comfortable background, hopefully someone with a better pedigree than their own. That was the only way women moved up in the world in the middle of the 20th century.
After her wedding, Marilyn never saw her mother again. She was not pleased with her interracial marriage. Marilyn and James tried to ignore their differences and hoped the world would, as well. The book takes place in a time when interracial relationships were not only frowned upon, they were forbidden by law. It was not until 1967, that a Supreme Court decision ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.
The novel begins with 16 year old Lydia Lee’s disappearance. She is the middle child much loved by her parents and, at times, much resented by her other siblings because she receives the bulk of the attention, the bulk of the encouragement; their parent’s enthusiasm is actually smothering her, drowning her in unwanted attention and expectations that she is unable to fulfill, but it is the parent’s behavior pattern that makes her siblings feel decidedly left out. Most of the attention foisted upon Lydia is unwanted, but still, both her siblings look on, wistfully or angrily, wishing the attention was theirs.
This is a family that seems to be getting along from the outside, looking in, but inside, they are falling apart, deteriorating, heading for disaster. They are all dishonest with each other. They lie and steal from each other and sneak around trying to find their own place, trying to belong. It is ironic since both parents have experienced the same need, the need to find a place in which they would be comfortable. No one in the family seems to really know how to talk to each other, and they do not really see each other as they truly are. They do not see each other’s pain or their sadness and hardly share in their happiness either, but rather, they see each other as the person they want them to become, and they see only their own self-interest in the process. They simply do not communicate, but rather, they hide what troubles them. They present the public face that would make them and those around them the happiest, at least on the surface. Their interior private face is conflicted and confused. James and Marilyn are both trying to escape their pasts, and because of this, they impose their desires upon their children. They are trying to live vicariously through them, trying to resurrect their own lives through their children’s experiences. The story is driven by immaturity, secrets, misconceptions and misinterpretations. Self-pity abounds, although sometimes it feels justified! Lydia’s life and death drives the story off the cliff and forces them all to come to grips with their demons.
James and Marilyn brought their pasts into their marriage without realizing it, and it altered the way they behaved. Neither Marilyn nor James recognized the pain in their children’s eyes or the emotional distress they experienced because they were different. They believed if they ignored their differences and worked hard to fit in, they wouldn’t be hurt by them. They didn’t recognize that some people were not going to let their children in, anymore than their differences and different needs were acceptable as they grew up. Unrealistically, they pretended they were living in a more perfect world.
The book examines alternate lifestyles, sexual freedom, interracial relationships, dysfunctional families and people who act hatefully toward those they don’t accept, those they think are beneath them. The frustration caused by racial tension, the lack of equal rights for all and an inability to deal with the problems in the real world when no one is listening, is exposed in this well written first novel.