Lydia is dead. This is how the book starts. Lydia is a teenage girl and the middle child in an American Chinese household in the 1970s. Her father, James Lee, was born and raised in the US by Chinese immigrant parents. He has always been an outsider, and what he wants more than anything is for his children to fit in, like he never did.
Lydia’s mother, Marilyn on the other hand wants her children, or rather Lydia, to stand out and be extraordinary. She wants Lydia to become a doctor, like she wanted to be. Marilyn got pregnant and had to abort her studies. Now she’s a discontent housewife and Lydia must carry the burden of her mothers ambition.
Despite the fact that a girl is dead, not much happens in this book. What it does do is delve into the characters and tells a story about the difficulties of growing up in an interracial household in America in the 60s and 70s. I found the story and the struggle of the characters very interesting, and though I have no frame of reference it seems very real, very genuine. The characters are all multifaceted and complex and oh so human.
As Lydia’s death is discovered and investigated, each remaining member of the Lee family starts examining their lives and questioning what happened to Lydia, and their world slowly starts to disintegrate. Lydia’s parents gradually begin to realise that Lydia’s life was not as they had thought it was, and maybe she was not the perfect, dutiful, clever and popular daughter they had both treasured and pinned all their hopes and dreams on.
So what happened to Lydia? Did she crack under the pressure? Or did someone do this to her? We do eventually find out, but that’s not the main point of the story, rather it is the vehicle that lets the story be told. And the story meanders effortlessly in and out of the voices of different characters in a way that seems perfectly natural.
I was completely engrossed in this family portrait, and I was so sad for Marilyn and James that had never got to live the lives they wanted, but even more so for their children who in various ways had to bear the burden of all those unfulfilled dreams.
This book was beautiful, fascinating and heart-breaking. Definitely recommended. Just don’t go into it expecting action or a murder mystery.