I could describe this initially very promising book club read as, well, a fire: it starts off with an explosive bang, burns bright and strong for a while, before slowly dying out. It’s by no means a disaster and I enjoyed many aspects of the novel, but perhaps it simply spread itself too thin, with too many characters, perspectives and story threads competing for space.
Ng’s novel is infused with a strong sense of place, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that she based it in the place she grew up in, namely the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a placid and orderly suburb where you can’t paint your house any shade other than the carefully pre-selected options. The book opens with a shocking event: someone burns down the house of Richardsons, an affluent, quintessential Shaker Heights family, with everyone blaming the youngest daughter Izzy, the difficult black sheep who is conspiculously missing after the fire. It’s an eye-catching way to start the book and as a reader you’re eager to find out what chain of events led to this extreme act, but it’s also something of a distraction because the bulk of the book has very little to do with Izzy.
There’s a lot going on in the novel, but in the end its themes can be boiled down to a couple of things: motherhood and moral dilemmas concerning parents and children, and repressed suburban conformity vs free spirit. The latter is explored through the characters of Mrs Richardson and Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist who moves into Richardsons’ rental apartment. Mia has a teenage daughter Pearl, who has never had a stable life because of her mother’s nomadic lifestyle and is now excited by Mia’s promise to stay in Shaker Heights for good. She becomes close friends with Moody, Mrs Richardson’s youngest son, and gradually becomes a part of the family, while also developing a serious crush on the eldest son Trip. Meanwhile, rebellious and restless Izzy becomes fascinated with Mia and her unconventional ways, and forges a connection that she could never have with her own mother.
These earlier chapters about the complicated personal dynamics and the influence these two very different families have on each other were easily my favourite parts of the book. Then it throws in a whole different subplot concerning close friends of Richardsons who adopt a baby girl abandoned at a fire station. The girl’s mother, a young Chinese immigrant, now wants her daughter back, and a bitter custody battle erupts, putting Mrs Richardson and Mia on opposing sides. Driven by resentment and suspicion, Mrs Richardson becomes determined to dig up the secrets of Mia’s past and somehow expose her troublemaking tenant.
At this point, the book takes a detailed detour into Mia’s backstory, which goes on for so long it unfortunately derails the story in the present; it loses all momentum and never quite recovers. Put simply, the novel is juggling far too many balls and gives spotlight to way too many characters; I haven’t even mentioned yet another subplot about secret teenage pregnancy. The moral quandary regarding the Chinese girl, her child and biological vs adoptive parents is genuinely fascinating and could have been a book on its own, but here it feels underdeveloped as does pretty much everything else.
My other annoyance was the too-obvious way the author stacks the deck in favour of oh-so-free-spirited Mia and wants you to root for her against oh-so-repressed Mrs Richardson, while glossing over Mia’s flaws and questionable decisions. This clear favouritism is even in the way she chooses to refer to the two women, one by her first name and the other by the more distancing “Mrs Richardson”. I’d like to decide for myself who I prefer to side with, thanks very much. The book also relies way too much on contrivances and coincidences (the story of Mia’s pregnancy in particular stands out as rather ludicrous). Ng is clearly a gifted writer and her second novel was still enjoyable to read, but its messy structure and lack of focus leaves it ultimately a letdown.