In 1977 Cincinnati, Ohio the mixed race Lee family - composed of ethnically Chinese dad James, American mom Marilyn, and their children Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah - is unusual for the time period. In fact, James and the children are among the very few Orientals in the area, subjected to occasional teasing and stares from the local population. As the book opens sixteen-year-old Lydia is missing, soon to be found dead at the bottom of a lake. The remainder of the book goes back and forth in time, relating how James and Marilyn grew up, met, and married - and the devastating effect of Lydia's death on the family.
We soon learn that Lydia has sky-blue eyes like her mother and is the most 'caucasian-looking' of the Lee children. She is also the golden hope of her parents, for different reasons. James, who always felt like an outsider with no friends, would like his children to fit in and be popular. Apparently, he thinks Lydia has the best chance of accomplishing this goal. Marilyn, on the other hand, feels cheated out of her ambition of becoming a doctor and desperately wants Lydia to go to medical school.
For various reasons revealed in the book Lydia is determined to please her parents, especially her mom. On the surface, therefore, Lydia is the ideal child. As far as her parents know Lydia spends most of her time attending school, doing homework, and studying. And her few spare hours are apparently spent socializing with and phoning her girlfriends. In reality, though, Lydia is struggling in school, has no girlfriends, and hangs out with Jack - the local bad boy/teen heart-throb who lives down the street.
In the course of the story we learn that Lydia's brother Nathan, a bright boy who's interested in outer space, has gotten into Harvard - the only school his dad finds acceptable. Even so, on the very day Nathan's college acceptance packet arrives he's shunted aside, as usual, because of his parents' concerns about Lydia. Little Hannah has it even worse. She's practically invisible to the family, who generally ignore her or push her away. The only time Hannah gets attention is when she swipes a trinket or book from her parents or siblings and they come looking for it.
Lydia's death shocks the Lee family, each of whom struggles to make sense of it. Nathan hates Lydia's elusive friend Jack, and practically accuses him of killing her. Marilyn spends most of her time in Lydia's room, grieving and searching for clues. Hannah knows more than she tells but not enough to solve the mystery. And James' despair drives him to act out in uncharacterstic ways. In the end - when the actions leading to Lydia's death are revealed - they make sense.
The characters in the story are generally well-drawn and realistic and I had sympathy for them despite (in some cases) some pretty bad behavior. On the other hand the actions of one character in particular were not believable (to me) and detracted from the story.
I feel like this book is a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents - with all good intentions - try to control their children's lives. Other readers, depending on their personal experiences, will probably see different lessons in the book.
My final assessment: this is an excellent book, well-written and highly recommended.
Rating: 4 stars