I am bereft. I have exited the world of Mia Warren and her various relationships and I feel a bit lost and unmoored.
The world of Mia and her daughter Pearl and the Richardson family and all their associations in the planned community of Shaker Heights ("Most communities just happen; the best are planned.") have been the society in which I have been living these past few days. My sojourn there gave me a lot to think about and I didn't want it to end.
We visit Shaker Heights in the mid-1990s and meet the Richardson family on a day of tragedy for them. Someone has set fire to their comfortable home and uprooted their comfortable lives. In fact, someone set not just one fire but "little fires everywhere", pouring accelerant on three beds in the house and setting them ablaze.
Mrs. Richardson was in the house asleep at the time and we first encounter her standing on the sidewalk in front of the house in her robe and slippers as the firemen work to contain the blazes. Along with her are three of her four teenage children, Trip, Lexie, and Moody. They are soon joined by Mr. Richardson who has returned from work when notified of the fire. The fourth and youngest child, Izzy, is not present and is unaccounted for, and suspicion soon rests on her as the starter of the fires.
Slowly, the author draws us into this family's story and we learn about their tenants in a duplex rental property in another part of the Heights. Mia and Pearl Warren had moved in eleven months earlier. Mia is an artist, a photographer, who has led a vagabond existence for several years. She and Pearl travel in their Volkswagen Rabbit wherever Mia's inspiration takes them and at each new location, she begins a new photography project.
Fifteen-year-old Pearl has begun to long for some stability and roots and, when they came to Shaker Heights, Mia promised her they would stay. Now, all these months later, the two families, the Warrens and the Richardsons, have commingled. Pearl has become a fixture in the Richardson household and she and Moody are best friends. Meanwhile, Izzy is drawn to Mia and is learning about her art, helping her with it almost every day after school.
Soon, the community of Shaker Heights is divided over a child custody battle. Bebe Chow, a Chinese immigrant, had given birth to her daughter, May Ling, a year earlier. She was alone and without resources, working a minimum wage job, and she was in over her head, suffering from postpartum depression, and unable to properly care for her baby. Realizing this, she wrapped the baby in blankets and left her in a cardboard box at the door of a fire station.
The firemen found her, of course, and delivered her to social services and social services, in turn, delivered her to the McCulloughs, a rich white couple who had tried for years to have a baby. They were ecstatic.
The McCulloughs showered their love and their considerable worldly goods on the child, whom they named Mirabelle, for a year. By then, the birth mother, Bebe, was in a better place financially and emotionally and she wanted her baby back. The ensuing custody battle had wide-ranging and unexpected reverberations that would eventually touch the Warrens and the Richardsons and change the course of their lives.
This is a novel about families, about class and race, adolescence and sexuality, about art, and about what defines an individual's sense of right and wrong. But most of all it is about motherhood, about what makes a real mother: Is it blood or is it love? The author gives us nuanced and sympathetic portraits of all her characters that help us to see all sides of the moral questions which the book asks.
At one point, Lexie, the blond, white "girl-next-door" Richardson who has a black boyfriend, says, "I mean, we're lucky. No one sees race here." That is the fantasy of the Shaker Heights world and it is not even close to the truth, but in the 1990s, it could serve as an innocent delusion. Part of the magic of this book is that Celeste Ng draws us in and even makes us a part of that delusion.
There is, in fact, a lot of magic in this book which is why I was so sad to turn that last page.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars