Shaker Heights is a perfect suburb in Cleveland where everything is meticulously planned right from the layout of the streets and the length of the grass to the successful and conformist lives the residents will lead. Elena Richardson embodies these rules without complaints and ensures her family including her husband and four children – Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy – follow them too. However, Izzy has always been the black sheep of the family and a difficult child.
Mia Warren arrives in this idyllic suburb with her teenage daughter, Pearl. Unlike most of Shaker Heights, Mia is a single mother, an artist who doesn’t live life according to rules. She rents a house from Mrs Richardson but soon, she and her daughter become more than just tenants as the Richardson teens are drawn to Mia and Pearl for different reasons.
When close family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle begins between the birth mother who is also a friend of Mia’s. Not only does this divide the community, it also puts Mia and Elena on opposite sides. Elena Richardson attempts to uncover Mia’s past to find out what her agenda really is. But sometimes, uncovering someone’s past when they want it hidden, can come with devastating consequences.
Having loved Ng’s previous novel, it was a no-brainer for me to pick up her latest offering and she didn’t disappoint. Her prose moves seamlessly between past and present as she slowly uncovers details about the Richardson family as well as the Warrens. She asks questions about the emphasis on perfection placed by society and the need to constantly aspire to be something, to follow the plans of life (go to uni, get married, get a job, buy a house, have children – in that order) and what happens when those plans are challenged by life itself. She also touches on the subtle racism that pervades western society. Ng beautifully explores parent-teen relationships showing readers how to engage ‘difficult’ teenagers.
The plot, while gripping, moves at a slow pace and that’s not a bad thing. It helps you savour Ng’s writing. and while the ending is not completely surprising, it is bittersweet. It makes you wonder about the characters and their future. You think about them long after you’ve closed the book.
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Until next time,