I had high expectations starting this novel – there’d been a lot of buzz about it, and that opening line is a lesson in achieving the perfect hook:
‘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.’
The opening chapter then proceeds with such a bang – the Richardsons’ family house has been deliberately burnt down, presumably by Izzy who has set ‘a small crackling fire … directly in the middle of each bed’ before disappearing from town. So I was a little surprised how it then all slowed down, taking its time to move back and establish the dynamic between the two families, headed up by Mrs Richardson and her artist tenant, Mia Warren.
Mrs Richardson embodies the spirit of Shaker Heights itself – an idealised Cleveland community which has become the reserve of the reasonably wealthy – and she rents out one of the smaller houses in the neighbourhood,
‘Mrs Richardson looked at the house as a form of charity. She kept the rent low – real estate in Cleveland was cheap, but apartments in good neighborhoods like Shaker could be pricey – and she rented only to people she felt were deserving but who had, for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life. It pleased her to make up the difference.’
I wondered if we were heading down familiar American territory here – the successful housewife and mom who secretly knows that the all-American world she has built is in fact a gilded cage when faced with another woman, Mia, who has rejected social conventions – but then the story shifts up a nuanced gear with the introduction of the adoption of a Chinese toddler, born to an immigrant mother who had left her at a fire station in Cleveland, and things get a lot more interesting. Lines around the thorny, emotional state of motherhood (fathers are present but rarely heard) are drawn, and this story becomes much more complex.
At the heart of the novel is Mia’s relationship with her daughter Pearl, two nomadic characters I found fascinating. Mia’s backstory adds a depth to the narrative and the subsequent events can be seen in its light. Ng writes movingly about mothering teenagers,
‘Parents, she thought, learnt to survive toughing their children less and less. As a baby Peral had clung to her; she’d worn Pearl in a sling because whenever she’d set her down, Pearl would cry … Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses had become rare – a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug – and all the more precious because of that.’
Ng focuses on the dynamics between her female characters – their relationships with the male characters are just as deftly drawn but it is the women who are spot-lit, be it the awkward transactions between Mrs Richardson and Mia, or the blossoming admiration Izzy feels for Mia. Izzy remains somewhat a shadowy figure in the background of her confident family, by choice, but the dedication suggests this book is for others like her: ‘To those out on their own paths, setting little fires.’
This proves to be a more imaginative and thought-provoking novel than I had expected when reading about Elena Richardson’s own story. And she herself, by the end, has revealed to be a more fascinating figure than I had initially suspected. Fires as a means of clearing ground is something that gives pause for thought – we’re left with an honest reflection of the complexities of the parent-child relationship. This novel ultimately deserves the buzz.