As Nath prepares to attend his admitted-students weekend, Lydia reflects on the smallness of her own life. She has only ever been on two family vacations, and she grows jealous of Nath’s ability to learn about places beyond their small Ohio town. Nath’s excitement is clear. As he prepares for his trip, he asks Lydia about her opinion on which shirt he should pack. Lydia is shocked at her brother’s new clothing and already feels distant from him.
Nath tells Lydia that he recently drove himself to the mall and picked out a new shirt for the trip. He describes how having this new item of clothing makes him feel like he has “shed a layer of skin.” When Nath leaves the following morning, his absence at the breakfast table pains Lydia. While Marilyn reads the newspaper during the morning of Nath’s departure, she can tell that Lydia is particularly vulnerable. However, she chooses not to address Lydia’s feelings, instead focusing on reviewing her past homework.
When Nath does not call home on Saturday or Sunday, Lydia feels a deep sense of abandonment. She begins to grow anxious about what life will be like when Nath actually starts school in the fall. She has the harrowing realization that it will be like “she never had a brother at all.” Hannah, who can sense her sister’s sadness, begins following Lydia around the house. She suggests a plethora of activities for her and her sister to do, but Lydia rejects all of Hannah’s proposals.
Hannah’s closeness with Lydia is a new experience. Due to this proximity, Lydia begins to notice things about Hannah that she never has before. Particularly, Lydia is struck by the chain that Hannah wears around her neck, and she recognizes it as the silver necklace her father gave her years ago.
Aggravated, Lydia pulls Hannah by the chain, leaving a red mark around her sister’s neck. She tells Hannah to “never smile if she doesn’t want to.” This interaction is the last that the sisters share, and Hannah continues to hyper-analyze this moment in the years following Lydia’s death.
Lydia eventually decides to call Nath while he is at Harvard. Upset at his sister’s neediness, he snaps over the phone. Lydia intends to tell Nath about her father’s relationship with Louisa. However, she finds herself unable to muster the courage to reveal the secret. Nath yells at Lydia, telling her that she should instead confide in her new best friend, Jack.
The next day, Lydia awakes feeling differently. She puts on the nicest dress she owns, and she attempts to seduce Jack after school. As she leans in to kiss him, she finds that her advance is not met positively. Instead, Jack admits that he has feelings for Nath. The two have an argument, and Jack insults Lydia’s spineless behavior. This comment serves as a wake-up call for Lydia, and she makes a vow to herself to go to the lake and learn how to swim as a way of proving her resilience.
The final chapter of the story profiles the Lee family in the present moment. James, who left town following the exposure of his affair, has decided to return home. There, he cradles Hannah close to him and makes amends with Marilyn. Meanwhile, Nath sees Jack at the lake. Because he still blames Jack for Lydia’s death, he begins beating up Jack. However, Jack does not resist the attack. When Nath falls into the water, he realizes that he will never truly understand the circumstances of Lydia’s death. He finds a semblance of peace in this realization, and forgives Jack as he helps him out of the water.
Nath’s preparation for Admitted Students Weekend indicates his rebirth. His purchase of a new shirt is symbolic. Nath describes the feeling of putting on his new shirt as “shedding old skin.” In this way, Nath views his opportunity at Harvard as a way of recreating and redefining himself. He is anxious to leave his life in Ohio behind.
However, as Nath grows more excited about his approaching departure, Lydia grows more depressed. Despite her attempts to sabotage Nath’s leave, she cannot avoid the fact that her brother is moving on to the next developmental phase of life. While it is clear that Lydia is struggling emotionally, no one in the Lee family chooses to address her anxieties. The inability to be vulnerable is a recurring motif throughout the novel. As readers, we realize that if the Lee family chose to communicate their fears and anxieties to each other, their problems might not fester in the same way.
Instead of addressing how Lydia is reacting to this big change in her life, Marilyn continues to pressure her academically. This pressure isolates Lydia even more, and she is made to feel like she is drowning. Hannah’s keen attention to Lydia indicates Hannah’s emotional maturity and sensitivity. However, Lydia’s anger at the necklace demonstrates Lydia’s emotional fragility and unhappiness.
Lydia's feelings of malcontent continue to fester into the following day. It becomes clear that she is not acting rationally, and instead is driven by her confused emotions. Her decision to seduce Jack indicates how she seeks sexual fulfillment while she is vulnerable. However, when Jack explains that he has feelings for Nath, Lydia is forced to face her own insecurities and make significant changes.
The final chapter demonstrates how each character attempts to resolve their complicated feelings following tragedy. Primarily, Nath seeks to assert his masculinity by targeting Jack. However, when Jack does not fight back, Nath realizes that despite his hardened exterior, Jack, too, is struggling with an internal conflict. This experience unifies the two boys. As Nath falls into the lake, he emerges reborn, free from anger. He finds peace in the ambiguity of Lydia’s death, and he realizes that life must go on.