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. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday morning in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked.
No, it’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph of the novel, leaving the reader to keep wondering, “Who is Mirabelle McCullough, why is she also known as May Ling Chow, and who is this Izzy who set the fire? It’s particularly interesting that these characters are barely mentioned for a good portion of the book, giving us time to absorb the setting and the players. But I only realized that after the fact, because there was so much to pay attention to in this story that asks questions like: Can we really not see race? Rules and reason, passion and art, which is the higher value, and can they coexist?
The setting is Shaker Heights in the 90s, where Ng grew up, and it really was, as explained in the book, inspired by the Shakers as a highly planned community. I’ve followed Ng on Twitter since I read her Pushcart-winning short story “Girls, at Play” (a story that’s still one of my favorites, a true powerhouse of teenage horror with nary a vampire in sight) and I remember her telling us about the “mini garbage trucks” that picked up trash from behind houses, so the street view would remain pristine even on trash day. Yet the Shaker Heights of the story – and of fact – was also a community that made positive efforts to encourage racial diversity. That’s the thing about this book: as Ng points out in her Salon interview, there really are no villains. As in real life, people are complicated, with good and bad elements, making good and bad choices. And often, it’s just a matter of preference as to which is which.
This forms one of the main axes of the book: order and rules vs freedom and spontaneity, or, more bluntly, economics or art.
All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.
Elena Richardson believes in rules. I keep thinking of David Hume – “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” – but she’d reject that in favor of an orderly life. Unfortunately, an order-driven life can, and here does, cause intense frustration, as she learns when her house burns down. There must be room for little fires within the rules, flexibility rather than suppression, to prevent violent flare-ups.
Mia, on the other hand, has always followed her heart, which means she works odd jobs waitressing or housecleaning to pay the rent while working on her photographs. If she comes up with a good series, she can live off the sale of a series for a while and devote herself full-time to planning the next set. It’s an odd life, pulling up stakes frequently to find the next inspiration, getting to know every thrift shop in the region. “Why doesn’t your mom get a real job” a character asks Mia’s daughter, who is puzzled. “She has a real job… she’s an artist.” To Pearl, this way of life is as normal as the Richardsons consider theirs. To the Richardsons, it seems precarious.
Except for Izzy Richardson, the youngest Richardson, the one who has always struggled against the rules:
Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. In the first week of school, after reading T. S. Eliot, she had tacked up signs on all the bulletin boards: I HAVE MEASURED OUT MY LIFE WITH COFFEE SPOONS… She had fantasies of students whispering in the halls – Those signs? Who put them up? What did they mean? – noticing them, thinking about them, waking up for God’s sake. But in the rush before first period everyone funneled past them up and down the stairwells, too busy passing notes and cramming for quizzes to even glance up at the bulletin boards, and after second period she found that some dour security guard had torn the signs down….
It isn’t until Mia comes into her life that she finds a focus for her chaotic energy beyond blind rebellion. This could be such a beautiful thing, a relationship welcoming growth. But the primary conflict of the story makes that impossible. And that brings us to a secondary axis: what does “the best interests of the child” mean?
It’s a custody battle between a well-established couple who have tried everything to conceive before turning to adoption, and a mother who, in a moment of despair and desperation, abandoned her baby at a fire station. Again, there are no villains here. Just as Izzy’s mother is not just a regimental tyrant (she has, or at least had, good reasons for her focus on Izzy), neither Bebe Chow nor the McCulloughs are evil, and in fact both followed the rules. Elena truly believes she could never be caught in a situation like Bebe’s, that she would have “made better choices” all along. What she can’t see is that some people don’t have all the choices other people get, and, while the rules can be harsh no matter how blessed you are financially, they can be even harsher to those who have few resources and no safety net.
Elena’s husband, the attorney for the McCulloughs, can see a bit farther than Elena:
For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.
I would only add that he might consider: who makes the rules? What assumptions – and what surreptitious goals and fears – underlie them?
I had some trouble with Mrs. McCullough, but that is a feature, not a bug. When asked if she would raise her adopted daughter with an understanding of her cultural heritage, she lists things like having purchased some Asian art and eating at a local Chinese-American restaurant. Ng herself calls it “cringeworthy” in her Guardian interview, but that’s by design: “I wanted the reader to have double vision at that point. To squirm, but also to see that she had good intentions and that the resources available to her were limited.”
And that’s pretty much how I reacted to it: first wondering if anyone was truly that stupid, then realizing I had no idea what an appropriate answer would be. “We want Mirabelle to grow up like a typical American girl” says Mrs. McCullough. But what is a typical American girl? How do you avoid “othering” is perhaps the root question – what do you say to her a few years down the road, when she notices that, while her friends look like their parents, she doesn’t look at all like Mom and Dad? Is the “I don’t see race” refrain – so popular with the Shaker Heights residents in the book – the way to go? Is it possible for us to not see race?
I’m quite fond of Rohan Maitzen’s take on her Novel Readings blog:
And though our family history is in one sense our heritage, there seemed something uncomfortably essentialist about the argument that May Ling / Mirabelle’s identity must be decided by her biology. I found myself wishing that the arguments within the book about these polarized views (“race should mean nothing”; “race means everything”) were more complicated–though perhaps what Ng wanted was for us to be dissatisfied with both answers, just as I think she leaves us feeling that there isn’t an obviously right answer about who should raise the baby.Rohan Maitzen at Novel Readings
That’s the value in a novel like this: there’s plenty to think about, a stimulus for a great discussion with no easy answers. And it looks like that conversation is going to broaden: the book, already wildly popular (six months on Best Seller lists), will be made into a miniseries starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. I hope it generates in all of us the kind of thoughtful reflection, a willingness to see without judging, that I felt it was asking of me. We could use some of that right now.