Sixteen-year-old Lydia is found dead (don't worry, you know this from the first sentence) and her family deals with her death in different ways. Through flashbacks and multiple points-of-view, the parents and surviving sister and brother, reveal their motivations and the scars inflicted on each of them as a result of feeling like outsiders in a world that doesn't accept biracial marriages. What the author does so well is make the characters' revelations unfold like a mystery leading the reader to wonder if Lydia was murdered, committed suicide, or had an accident.
James is Chinese-American and grew up in a town where he was the only Chinese boy in school. His blond wife, Marilyn, wanted to be a doctor before meeting James at Harvard University where she was a student and he was a graduate teacher. They are drawn to each other because they never felt like they fit in with mainstream society. James feels sidelined because of his ethnicity while Marilyn feels isolated because of her gender. When Marilyn finds out she is pregnant, she quits school to become a housewife.
The author does a good job showing a mother killing her daughter by placing impossible expectations on her. Marilyn's complex relationship with her daughter and extending her squashed dreams onto her is tragic. James wanting Lydia to fit in so desperately that he buys books for her on how to make friends and then she, in turn, pretends to talk on the phone with friends is poignant in showing just how off-kilter the relationships are in this family.
Whether an Asian-American man and white woman should get married is the overarching theme, but the idea of feeling marginalized in society is explored even more. The entire family does not feel like they fit in with the culture and the result is isolation, loneliness, and feeling trapped. The end has an interesting twist that makes a character's motives unclear. Either way, all of the characters are not grounded in reality and their lives have become impossible. No one in this family really talks to each other, until the very end, where some understandings are made that suggests the family can move forward. They'll limp along, no doubt, but at least they will start moving forward.