Nath readjusts to his family's changing dynamics. Upon Marilyn's return, Lydia becomes the golden child. At dinner, his parents ask her questions about her classes and her friends (or lack thereof). Meanwhile, Nath and Hannah are ignored. As Marilyn pressures Lydia more and more to perform well in her science courses, Lydia's grades plummet.
Lydia knows that the only reason she wants to be a doctor is to make her mother happy. As her grades keep falling, Lydia feels as though she is a failure. She finds comfort in her relationship with Nath. Lydia's close relationship with her brother is threatened when he is accepted to Harvard for the following fall. Upset at the possibility of him leaving home, Lydia hides his acceptance letter from him.
Nath notices that his sister is behaving strangely. However, he relishes his chance to escape his complex life at home and move to Cambridge. When Nath's acceptance letter incorrectly gets delivered to the Wolff's house, he discovers that his dream of leaving home will come true. As their family celebrates Nath's acceptance, Lydia tells Marilyn that she is failing her high school physics course. Nath's success makes Lydia realize her own failures.
At Christmas, Lydia is given books as presents. Her mother gives her science books, while her father gives her self-help books. Lydia feels suffocated by her pressure to succeed academically and socially. When she returns to school after Christmas break, Lydia seeks to befriend Jack Wolff, the "bad boy" of Middlewood High. She knows that her new friendship will torture Nath, but she views it as revenge for him leaving home and going to Harvard.
While in Jack's car after school, Lydia plays as if she is a rebel. She smokes her first cigarette, but Jack is not impressed. Instead, he asks question after question about Nath and his upcoming matriculation. Then, Jack remarks on her "unique" appearance and asks her "what it's like" to be half-Chinese. Lydia has never been asked this question before, but she realizes that her biracial identity is essentially the reason why she feels like an outcast.
The story flashes forward, to a scene after Lydia has passed away. James continues his affair with Louisa. Nath notices his father's strange behavior, and he confronts his father about his new "smell of perfume." James grows angry at Nath's confrontation, but he is quickly distracted by a call from the police. They have ruled Lydia's death a suicide. James feels immensely guilty for his daughter's death, as he believes that his Asian race has unfairly caused his kids to be the targets for incessant teasing.
At Louisa's apartment, James is fed Chinese food and given affection. He thinks about leaving his responsibilities behind and beginning a new life with Louisa. The story flashes back to a moment shared by Nath, Lydia, Hannah, and Jack at the lake. Hannah sees Jack stare longingly at Nath, and she realizes that Jack has a crush on her brother. The story returns again to the present moment, and Marilyn discovers her husband's affair. She confronts Louisa at her apartment and expresses her anger about the situation.
At this moment in the plot, we begin to see how there are numerous pressures weighing down on Lydia simultaneously. Lydia is not dishonest with herself, and she understands her own behavior and motivations. She is not in denial about the fact that she does not want to be a doctor. Rather, she accepts that this is not her dream, but rather Marilyn's. This understanding causes Lydia to feel like she has no autonomy over her own life.
Similarly, Lydia feels a loss of control with Nath's upcoming move. Although Lydia attempts to hide Nath's letters from Harvard, she ultimately cannot reverse the fact that Nath has been accepted and that he will leave home in the fall. Lydia succumbs to the pressures upon her. Her grades plummet, which causes her mother to be even more disappointed and push her even harder to succeed. In this interaction with Nath, we also come to understand Lydia's weak self-esteem. Nath's successes remind her of her numerous shortcomings.
Nath's academic success grants him an escape. By contrast, Lydia's failing grades limit her possibilities for leaving her town and attending college away. In this regard, Lydia feels that her existence is stagnant and claustrophobic. Unable to vocalize her numerous emotions, Lydia begins acting out. When she befriends Jack, she is clearly seeking to find her identity by associating with the quintessential rebel. In addition, she is aware that her friendship will provoke Nath and cause him to give her the attention she wants.
Jack becomes an incredibly important character in the story. He is the only main character that is not a member of the Lee family. The fact that he is not on the interior of the Lee family allows him to be detached and evaluate behaviors from a removed perspective. When Jack asks Lydia about her biracial identity, she realized that no one has ever asked her about this before. This conversation prompts Lydia to reflect upon her upbringing, and she begins to unpack the years of trauma and teasing she has endured. Jack's perspective also becomes relevant at the conclusion of the story.
It is no coincidence that Ng transitions from discussing Jack and Lydia to discussing James and Louisa. The parallelism of these experiences is incredibly clear, even down to the similarities between the character's names. Just as Lydia searches for her identity through her relationship with Jack, James attempts to unpack his racial identity by finding an Asian partner. In addition, Louisa allows James to feel a sense of authority that he has never felt before in his life. In these experiences, we see how a character's perception of themselves affects their romantic choices.