It is certainly a page turner.
It starts with a brilliant first line: "Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down." (p 1, C1) This scenario made me think of the Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides but Ng's book is the cosy fire at which one roasts chestnuts at Christmas while Eugenides offers a fire that terrifies and mystifies.
There seemed to be a lot of show not tell, eg "Moody had never thought much about money, because he had never needed to." (p 23, C3). Issues (such as whether a rich white couple should adopt the baby abandoned by a poor Chinese single mother) were told with balanced fairness but seemed more like a carefully politically correct exploration of the pros and cons than something that might really have happened. The book seemed a little contrived and preachily moralistic; the community and its rules deliberately chosen as counterpoint to the artistic freedom insisted upon by Mia. There are times when the authorial voices intervenes: "How could you blame Mia’s parents for not understanding? They had been born in the wartime years; they’d been raised by parents who’d come of age in the Depression, who threw nothing out, not even moldy food. They were old enough to remember when rags became felt for the war effort, when cans and scrap metal could become bullets and cans of grease explosives. Practicality was baked into their bones. They wasted nothing, especially not time." (p 197; C 13) The author seems to gaze fondly at her characters and shakes her head in fond exasperation at their foibles like an endlessly tolerant and inevitably caring grandma. This is a very nice book, appropriate to the utter niceness of its setting; it is cosy and comforting but, despite its carefully poised arguments, it doesn't challenge.
I think my problem with this book is illustrated by this pair of quotes, both about Lexie:
- "When Lexie ordered from a menu, she never said, “Could I have …?” She said, “I’ll have …” (P 36, C4)
- "Lexie was seldom, if ever, offended: subtle implications and subtexts tended to bounce off the fine mesh of her brain." (p 48, C5)
The first allows me to learn about Lexie from her behaviour. The second tells me about Lexie.
All too often it feels as if the author is too much in control of her characters and using them to make points, as if, instead of being real, they are puppets in a children's morality play:
- "She had learned that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them." (p 70, C6)
- "To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once." (p 122, C9)
- "Didn’t the elite have a responsibility to share their well-being with those less fortunate?" (p 158, C11)
- "What would she have done if she’d been in that situation? Mrs. Richardson would ask herself this question over and over, before Michael’s call and for weeks – and months – after. Each time, faced with this impossible choice, she came to the same conclusion. I would never have let myself get into that situation, she told herself. I would have made better choices along the way." (p 239 C15)
- "But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on." (p 269 C16)
- "He felt as if he’d dived into a deep, clear lake and discovered it was a shallow, knee-deep pond. What did you do? Well, you stood up. You rinsed your mud-caked knees and pulled your feet out of the muck. And you were more cautious after that." (p 276 C17)
Outline of Plot (some spoilers)
Having hooked the reader, the story can be told at a slower pace. The first quarter sets the scene. Mia and Pearl arrive; Pearl makes friends with first Moody and then with the other Richardson children; the Richardsons hire Mia to clean and cook. Izzy, becomes a little obsessed by Mia, learning the art and craft of photography. One day, at a local art gallery, a photograph of Mia bu a famous photographer is found.
There is a mystery associated with this photograph. Mia is secretive and so is the New Yorker who sold it to the collector who loaned it to the gallery; the New Yorker is the same woman as sells Mia's work. Then Mia discovers that a foundling that is about to be adopted by a richer Shaker Heights couple (changing her name in the process) is the daughter of a poor Chinese woman she has befriended.
In the second quarter Mrs Richardson, a journalist, pursues the mystery of Mia; at the turning point it is revealed that Mia got pregnant as a surrogate mother. Meanwhile Pearl has started to have sex with Trip and Lexie has become pregnant by her black boyfriend Brian, aborting it by going to a clinic with Pearl and using Pearl's name.
Half of the third quarter is a flashback which goes into the circumstances surrounding Pearl's birth, as discovered by Mrs Richardson. The other half begins the trial to decide whether a Chinese baby, abandoned by her birth mother and on the point of adoption by a rich white couple, should be brought up by the remorseful birth mother or the rich couple. Lexie is often over at Mia's because of the support she received following the abortion. Moody is upset when he finds that Pearl is having sex with his big brother.
In the fourth quarter all these threads, mismanaged by Mrs Richardson, entangle to lead to the fire at the start.
- "He wondered what kind of Tetris they had done to fit all the pieces of the bed into such a small car." (p 16, C 2)
- "what could be less satisfying than stealing from someone so endowed that they never even noticed what you’d taken?" (p 16, C2)
- "It was as if she had glanced at a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces and saw the whole picture without even consulting the box." (p 33, C3)
- "It huddled on the edge of a dead, dirty lake, fed by a river best known for burning" (p 53, C5)
- "all three of them jumped, as if a piece of furniture had begun to speak." (p 55, C5)
- "she was trying on new skins, like all teenagers did" (p 74, C 7)
- "The photos stirred feelings she couldn’t quite frame in words, and this, she decided, must mean they were true works of art." (p 99, C8)
- "All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles." (p 161, C 11) I guess this counts as foreshadowing, but since we already know her home is going to be burned it is a backward-looking foreshadowing.
- "Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground." (p 161, C11) Ditto
- "What Mia remembered of those moments was watching the blades of grass in the breeze, changing color as they went, from dark to light, like the nap of velvet when you brushed your hand over it; the way the stream of water broke itself into droplets as it splashed against the cup’s rim." (p 187, C13)
- "It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all." (p 249 C15)
- "Was she the bird trying to batter its way free, or was she the cage?" (p 336 C 20)
A pleasant and inoffensive page-turning read. May 2020