This was a thoughtful, well-written and gripping book. It was also incredibly sad — just so, so sad.
“You don’t feel like smiling? Then what? Force yourself to smile. Act as if you were already happy, and that will tend to make you happy.”
Sixteen year old Lydia dies at the beginning of the book — she drowns in a lake. The rest of the book focuses on her family — her mother, father, sister and brother — as well as events that led up to Lydia’s death. It’s not a murder mystery. It’s a dissection of a family — everything that went wrong to led to Lydia’s death, and everything that goes wrong afterwards.
Lydia’s parents put incredible amounts of pressure on her to be a vessel for all of their unrealized dreams. Her father always wanted to be popular, after years as an outcast because of his ethnicity — he’s Chinese, but his wife is white. The book takes place in small-town Ohio in the 1970s, and this is a BIG DEAL. He pressures Lydia to make friends and be social — just smile more! Her mother always wanted to be a doctor, even to the point of abandoning her family to return to school (that whole subplot really upset me — she just up and leaves the father with two small kids in order to realize her own dreams). She pressures Lydia to study, to make good grades, and to dream of more than a marriage and children. At no point does anyone ask Lydia what she wants.
Mixed up in all of this are Lydia’s siblings, ignored by their parents in favor of this child that holds the key to their dreams. Her older brother, Nathan, studies just as hard and wants to escape their town just as badly as Lydia, but they ignore him. Their younger sister, Hannah, hides in corners and lives her life in Lydia’s shadow.
The pressure put on Lydia, the unhappiness her parents feel with their own lives, the way it affects their children — it’s just so quiet and sad. The subtle (and not so subtle) ways that the whole family is affected by the interracial marriage really floored me. The book is beautifully written, but it made me so gloomy. Not that it’s not worth reading — just be prepared for an afternoon of melancholy when you finish it.