Shaker Heights was founded on rules and order, and Elena Richardson is one of its most fervent native daughters. From the time she was a little girl, she had planned her life carefully, firm in her beliefs of right and wrong, always following what she thought was correct. She married well, had four children—two boys and two girls, maintained a small-town journalistic career that allowed her to put her family first, and made sure that she and her family could hold up their heads as models of success and respectability. When Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, arrived in town, Mrs. Richardson generously allowed them to live in her rental property at reduced rates. Nothing warmed her heart more than to do good deeds for the deserving poor.
Mia is an artist. Whenever she gets an idea for a project, she settles into a town, takes photographs, turns them into the vision in her head, ships them off to her agent, and packs up again. This time, though, she has promised Pearl that they would stay longer for her sake. She is surprised and uneasy when her daughter seems to fall in love with the Richardsons’ wealthy, bourgeois lifestyle. They have all the material things and experiences of privileged teens. Pearl is even thrilled to watch The Jerry Springer show on the couch with them every afternoon. The Richardsons are teaching Pearl to be everything that Mia never wanted.
Under the polished surface of Shaker Heights’ upstanding community, though, there are secrets, and as a journalist, Mrs. Richardson has the means to ferret them out. It is not right, after all, that the person one helped out so long ago does not consider herself to be in one’s debt forever. It is not right that newcomers, and especially foreigners, should believe that they have the same rights as one of the fine citizens of Shaker Heights. However, even though Mrs. Richardson can measure out her breakfast cereal every day, she cannot get a grip on her vexing youngest daughter, Izzy, who seems to be completely dazzled by that bohemian artist, Mia.
Celeste Ng writes a story of two generations in a rigid little world colliding with outside ideas and sojourners. Mothers and children are locked together with iron bonds that they simultaneously tighten and push against. Izzy is struggling to break free of her mother’s control and her siblings’ scorn, but her rebellion is limited to a young girl’s resources. Those resources turn out to be incredibly powerful. The suffocating community produces tragic decisions and secrets kept locked inside. There is no redemption here, no confession or forgiveness. As Mia tells one of the teens, there is just pain that you must carry.
I loved this novel for two reasons. The first is that I adore deep explorations of the artistic process. I have taken enough art classes to know that I cannot draw, and I have struggled through enough music lessons to know that I am not gifted. However, I am perfectly happy to be a devotee. Stories of artists passionate about their craft entrance me, so Mia’s evolution as a photographer, and then as someone who used photography to create meaningful works of art, was absorbing and fascinating. I rejoiced with every hint of her success.
Secondly, though, I empathize so closely with anyone trying to be free of others’ control. As a compliant child, I sometimes feel as if I have spent my adult life trying to escape the Mrs. Richardsons of the world, breaking through the walls of all those little boxes. And there are so many boxes! There were scenes in the novel where I could barely breathe, waiting for someone—anyone!— to fight back and triumph.
Although the ending is realistically complicated, there is hope that everyone has grown, and that the small steps down a new road— a road that was not even on the map before— will continue until each person finds freedom: freedom to let go, freedom to change, freedom to burn it all down and start again.
Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, although it is available right now. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.
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