Published September 2017 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: bought for my Nook
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town--and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
I've been wanting to read this book for a year but, as so often happens, I had to put it on the book club schedule to finally get around to reading it. First off, let me just say that this book made a great book club choice: so much to talk about. Ng touches on so many important topics: motherhood, adoption, surrogacy, abortion, race, class, and secrets.
Ng has readers considering motherhood by so many different angles: the mother who seems to have it all and balance it, the single mother, the mother who gave up her child, the mother who are desperate for a child, and the girl who doesn't want to be a mother. She explores the relationship between mothers and their children, what a mother must sacrifice for their children, and what makes a mother.
Elena is the mother who lives by the rules and follows the conventions. Mia is the mother who makes her own rules. It turns out neither may be the mother their children need.
There were pieces of this book that particularly appealed to me:
- There is a court proceeding to determine custody of an infant and Ng's examination there of what makes a good parent (is it better to choose biology or parents that can give the child more in terms of opportunity and things?) and if parents of one race are truly equipped to raise children of another race. Bearing in mind that the book is set twenty years ago when it would have been even more difficult to find books, movies, and toys that reflected any culture other than white, Ng seems to be saying that it's hard enough for parents of the same non-white race to surround their children with their own culture.
- Ng does a marvelous job of tapping in to what it feels like to be a teen - trying to fit in, the pressure to have sex, the drinking, the pressure to get into the right schools. But she is also very clear about the different race, money, and privilege can make in a teen's life.
- There's a lot going on in the book but it almost never feels forced which is a much bigger deal that it sounds like.
- The title is perfect: this book is filled with characters setting little fires everywhere. It's a wonder to watch it all unfold.
- I'm again impressed with Ng's ability to give you an ending to the book up front and then make you feel entirely differently about that event by the time you finish the book.
This is a book that made a lot of best-of lists for 2017 and it's easy to see why. It's so well crafted, a puzzle of a book with Ng masterfully moving the pieces into place. I was fascinated by many of the characters and it's a book I'm glad I got to talk about with other people because it really made me think about what I'd read. But...
I wanted to love this book. I really wanted it to make my best-of list for the year. I wanted to want to read it in one fell swoop. But I didn't love it and I'm still trying to figure out why not. Perhaps it's because even though there are a lot of really interesting characters in the book, I just could not connect with them. Perhaps it's because when we finally learn Mia's history, it really took me out of the story I had been reading. Perhaps it's because I live in the suburbs and the suburbs don't come off very well here. Perhaps it was because I felt like I was closer to being Mrs. Richardson than Mia and that made me uncomfortable because she is clearly the bad guy in this book. You see what I mean about not being able to put my finger on an answer?
Don't get me wrong; I would definitely recommend this book. I liked it a lot and it's a book that I think will stay with me a while because there is so much to it. I'm going to go add this book to my best-of list for 2018. How much it stays with me is going to determine whether or not it's still on the list by December.