Nath notices that Lydia has been spending the majority of her time with Jack. Nath is suspicious that the two are romantically involved, which leaves him unsettled. However, Jack instead asks Lydia question after question about Nath. Jack teaches Lydia how to drive. In the meantime, Lydia continues to feel suffocated by Marilyn’s academic expectations for her.
After dinner one evening, Lydia rushes upstairs mysteriously. Nath encounters her, and he finds that she is holding a letter from Harvard about his upcoming prospective student visit. At this moment, Nath realizes that Lydia does not want him to leave home. However, he is too focused on creating his own future and escaping his complicated family dynamics to care. Meanwhile, Lydia’s grades continue to plummet.
James comes to knock on Lydia’s door. There, he gives her a silver necklace wrapped in a blue velvet box. James explains that he originally wanted to give her a gold chain, but silver is trendier this year. This comment frustrates Lydia, as she realizes that her father is too preoccupied with external symbols of status. She continues to feel social pressure from James, which weighs her down even more.
On Lydia’s sixteenth birthday, James drives her to the DMV for her driving test. In the car is Louisa, James’s teaching assistant. As Lydia observes their behavior from the backseat, Lydia realizes that the two are romantically involved. She is disgusted at their flirtation, and ultimately cannot focus during her driving test. She fails the test, which further harms her self-esteem.
Marilyn and James realize that Lydia never actually studied for her driving test. Lydia, frustrated, tears off the silver necklace that James gave her. In her head, she continues to think about her father’s relationship with Louisa. Lydia debates whether to tell Nath about this realization, or to withhold the information as a secret.
The story flashes to the present day. At their home, Marilyn confronts James about his affair with Louisa. As Nath and Hannah look on from the stairs, they witness Marilyn kick their father out of the house. James flees, driving to Toledo. Meanwhile, Marilyn enters Lydia’s abandoned room, where she finds the Betty Crocker cookbook. Marilyn seems to understand that Lydia has read the cookbook time and time again.
At Harvard, Nath navigates being outside of his home for the first time. He drinks his first beers and talks with other students. He gets a taste of the freedom he has longed for. Meanwhile, Lydia is repulsed by her brother’s absence. She slowly realizes that she will have no confidant when he leaves. This abandonment makes her feel as though she is drowning.
Nath’s suspicion about Lydia and Jack indicates the importance of the “appearance-versus-reality” theme in the novel. Although Jack appears to be courting Lydia with his cigarettes and his car, he actually has ulterior motives for growing close to her. At the time, Lydia does not find Jack’s curiosity suspicious. Rather, it gives her the impression that he wants to get to know her better. However, this is not the case.
Lydia’s decision to steal Nath’s letter from Harvard indicates her selfish and destructive behavior. Although she does not have been intentions, Lydia’s anxiety directly affects those around her. It becomes clear that losing Nath is Lydia’s worst fear. However, instead of communicating these feelings of abandonment and fear to Nath, she acts out in a way that directly affects his future. Nath, unable to understand the reasons for Lydia’s behavior, simply grows aggravated at his sister.
The silver necklace that James purchases for Lydia symbolizes the social pressure that James places on his daughter. Although the necklace demonstrates James’s affection, it also signifies his obsession with external appearances. James wants nothing more than for Lydia to fit in, and when he makes the comment that “silver is the trend of the year,” Lydia is unable to accept the gift positively. Furthermore, when James tells Lydia to always keep smiling, he demonstrates his preoccupation with representing his family in an “acceptable” way rather than addressing and solving their deep-seated struggles.
Lydia’s frustration with her father grows even more during her experience at the DMV. When Lydia sees Louisa in the car, she is automatically suspicious of the nature of her father’s relationship with his teaching assistant. As she observes their body language and dynamic, it becomes clear that the two are romantically involved. Lydia’s indecisiveness about whether to reveal this discovery about her father to Nath symbolizes the significance of secrets in the novel. James’s extramarital affair further demonstrates the disparity between his internal and external lives.
While Marilyn confronts James about his affair, Nath is experiencing many “firsts”’ in his life. Nath’s drinking indicates that he is reacting to the confining life he has at home. In addition, the reader gets insight into Marilyn’s strength. While American society has generally minimized the significance of housewives during the 1970s, Marilyn’s life demonstrates that being a wife and mother is incredibly demanding and difficult. A difference between Marilyn and James’s characters emerge. Marilyn is able to assert herself with confidence, while James is unable to do the same.