On May 3, 1977, Lydia Lee does not show up at the breakfast table. After a few days, Lydia’s lifeless body is found in the town’s lake. While the police investigate the criminal nature of Lydia’s death, Lydia’s parents, James and Marilyn Lee, begin to realize that they did not know the true identity of their daughter. Although Lydia gave the impression that she was well-adjusted in her academic and social life, she was actually dealing with a great amount of pressure and insecurity.
The novel then begins to switch to a series of flashbacks. These flashbacks provide context for Lydia’s emotional condition prior to her death. The Lee family is comprised of Marilyn, a Caucasian woman from Virginia, and James, a first-generation Chinese immigrant. Marilyn has always dreamed of being a doctor, and her enrollment at Radcliffe College is met with disgust by her mother, a home-ec teacher at the local high school. While in enrolled in a history class, Marilyn falls in love with her professor, James Lee. The two begin to have a relationship, and Marilyn is forced to drop out of class when she becomes pregnant with Nath. Marilyn’s decision to drop out of college haunts her for the rest of her life. After James is rejected from a teaching position at Harvard, the family moves to Middlewood, Ohio.
After Nath’s birth, Marilyn becomes pregnant again with Lydia. While raising her two young children, Marilyn becomes the housewife that her mother always wanted her to be. When Marilyn’s mother passes away unexpectedly, Marilyn vows to resume her studies. That summer, she abandons her family and moves, unannounced, to Toledo, Ohio. James is left alone with his children, and his insecurities surrounding his race, identity, and relationship are exacerbated.
When Marilyn learns she is pregnant with Hannah, she leaves school in Toledo and returns home. During the summer that Marilyn leaves, Nath takes out his frustration and pushes Lydia into the local lake. Lydia, unable to swim, begins to drown. Nath rescues her, and he realizes his sister’s emotional vulnerability.
Marilyn and James displace their insecurities and individual aspirations onto Lydia. Marilyn forces her daughter to enroll in a plethora of quantitative courses. Meanwhile, James insists that Lydia conform to her environment and try to fit in with the popular girls at school. At the same time, Nath is accepted to Harvard University. His upcoming move from home worries Lydia, as she fears she is losing her sole confidant. As a result, Lydia begins to act out. She begins to befriend Jack Wolff, the “bad boy” at school. This change heightens Nath’s frustration. After Jack confides in Lydia that he has a crush on Nath, Lydia feels an inescapable amount of pressure. She is ultimately prompted to go to the local lake, where she vows to “conquer her fears” and swim back to shore. However, she drowns in the process of the challenge.
The novel switches to the present-day, where Marilyn realizes that James has been involved in an affair with Louisa, his Chinese teaching assistant. After Marilyn confronts James, he flees, feeling guilty for his behavior and insecure about his Asian identity. While he is on his way to Ohio, he realizes that he cannot abandon his family. Instead, he returns home and begins to rebuild his relationship with Marilyn.
Nath, who believes that Jack is to blame for Lydia’s death, confronts the “bad boy” at the lake. There, he punches Jack numerous times and is shocked when he does not fight back. In that moment, Nath realizes that Jack may have feelings for him. At the end of the story, it is implied that Nath may reciprocate these romantic feelings. The novel concludes with the entire family attempting to achieve closure in the months after the tragedy.