In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.
I loved this book and gave it a good 4 stars on Goodreads. If I had to summarise what you would take away from this book is that you would be dealt a lesson on empathy and you will learn how to see both sides of the story because there are always two sides to a story. Just as you are ready, guns blazing, to severely dislike a character, Celeste Ng does a U-turn, pulls the brake and provides you the backstory of the character themselves and you end up sympathising with them. It is crucial to understand both sides of the story, how race impacts the upbringing of a child, whether race is factored in to the equation of motherhood and the definition of ‘mother’ itself. Once you do so, you’ll understand where people are coming from and achieve a Mia-like zen approach to life. You will learn to be more empathetic, positive and grateful without wearing rose-tinted glasses. Yes, you can do both, readers.
The setting plays a huge role in the shaping of several of the Richardson clan. Shaker Heights in Cleveland is an alleged progressive suburb yet for all its self-proclaimed progressiveness it reads like a dystopian, oppressive community isolated from the rest of the world. It commands its residents to rigidly adhere to the rules it has set and to deny any new ideas and individuality. Everything is planned right down to what colour curtains you are allowed to have. The detailed description at the start may have slowed down the pacing, however, rest assured, it creates the necessary stifled and suffocated impact on the reader and has you shuddering as if you were reading Brave New World and 1984 yet again. Because this is true and real life can do that; community values can over-step, overtake and overwhelm individuality and authenticity.
And this is where Mia Warren comes in. Mia with her detachedness and living life exactly how she wants under no obligation to anyone but herself and her daughter. Though this time, instead of restlessly moving to different places and states for inspiration for her art and photography, she decides to stay and make a normal life in Shaker Heights with and for her young, deep, intellectual and impressionable daughter Pearl.
There is a fire in the opening pages. The Richardson house and bedrooms have been set on fire and everyone suspects it is Izzy from the start including the Richardson’s themselves except Moody. Being the black sheep of the family myself, I instantly related to Izzy and this reader-character alliance continued throughout the book.
“You’re all always picking on her,” Moody said. “Maybe that’s why she acts mental.”
The entire book builds up to the fire. Moody, intrigued by Pearl, strikes a friendship with Mia’s young daughter and to keep her interest, he introduces her to his house and family. Decidedly, it is this act that sets the wheels in motions.
Pearl becomes fascinated by the Richardson’s and Lexie soon takes her under her wing. Elena Richardson, mother matriarch and full-blown clucking hen of the Richardson’s, visits Mia and quickly becomes wary of Mia’s ‘strange’ life even regarding as if she would an exotic beast at the zoo. We learn more about Lexie, Moody, Trip and Pearl and it’s your usual high school stuff which I thoroughy enjoyed. However, Izzy was by far the best Richardson and they all paled in comparison to her.
The story dramatically takes a turn here and focuses the limelight on the four mothers: Elena Richardson, Mia Warren, Bebe Chow and Linda McCullough. This is where it becomes more interactive for the reader. When Mia realises that the baby the McCullough’s adopted is actually Bebe’s daughter who she left at the fire station, Mia decides to drop her “don’t get attached” mindset. This is where a mother’s love for a child steps in and she believes that a baby should be with his/hers biological mother. The question is who is really the mother? What are the qualities that define a ‘mother?’ This question is debated in the courtrooms and debated in Shaker Heights by every resident.
To further question and understand both sides of the story, the backstory of both Bebe and Linda is provided to the reader. Bebe, of poor circumstances, unable to pay rent, feed and look after her baby, decides to leave her at the fire station, with the name of her baby ‘May Ling,’ believing it is the best option for now. After her move to Shaker Heights, she was unable to secure another job as a receptionist due to her poor command of English as stated by many companies despite having no problem in performing her earlier job as a receptionist in San Francisco. That should give you an idea as to how ‘progressive’ Shaker Heights is. However, she soon secures a job, though not as high-earning as her previous role, which provides a steady income and once Mia notifies Bebe of her daughter’s whereabouts, who she has been looking for, decides to bring her daughter home. Mia suggests contacting a news agency and this is where the battle for her daughter progresses to court with Bebe v State. Linda is a long-time Shaker resident, wealthy and free of worries except after a decade of marriage and many miscarriages, she was informed that it was impossible for her and husband to have a baby. They have tried adoption, some which fell through at the last-minute, and finally their adoption agency were able to provide a baby – May Ling, whom they have now decided to call Mirabelle.
Throughout the court cases, issues of race are brought up and as to how the McCullough’s will be able to ensure that May maintains her connection to her cultural identity. They repeatedly demonstrate that they are incapable of doing this. They justify that in Shaker Heights they do not see race, it is love that matters and it is love that they have in abundance. Each side levels insults each other’s competency. Even lawyer Ed Lim is not exempt from racial discrimination simply because he argued his case well and the public cannot possibly perceive that an Asian man can articulate and intelligent. This doesn’t fit into their perceptions of what an Asian man is like, they expect Jackie Chan “buffoonery” and not eloquence. Shaker Heights itself is divided. Even Lexie gradually takes Bebe’s side due to a matter of her own. I, for one, am more inclined to Bebe Chow. She is the biological mother and she made one mistake. One. No parent is perfect.
“How did you weigh a mother’s love against the cost of raising a child?”
Elena Richardson, who is vocally supportive of her best friend Linda, goes on a Mia Warren witch-hunt. In the process, we learn more about her and I was tempted to feel sorry for her. She had been as fiery and passionate as Izzy in her youth. With the complications of Izzy’s birth and subsequent potential danger, she lets her fear for Izzy turn into anger. Though it is disguised with love, the love is so well-hidden that it is no wonder that Izzy draws away from her with every jab, every fault picked up on, and without a single explanation provided to her. And as much as I wanted to understand why Elena had propped herself into a cage of her own making with her strict compliance of Shaker Height’s values and traditions, it was difficult to feel sorry for her when she uses kindness as a weapon. It is as if she has only employed its use as future credit to her beneficiaries. I use the legal terminology because she navigates her friendships as if they are legal contracts and professional contacts. Later, in the book, she is put in her place by her least likely victim.
As much as I love Mia, her backstory – which provided the most depth and the loveliest story about her relationship with her brother – it was filled with a plethora of technical photography jargon which was difficult to understand. I will note that for anyone interested in photography, I’m sure they’ll be enthused by Mia’s backstory. We finally learn about who Pearl’s father is and what circumstances led her to her decisions and in this case, I was neutral. Who is the rightful parent of a child born of surrogacy: the surrogate or the couple themselves? Is a contract binding in this case? I don’t know.
The judge eventually awards the McCullough’s, but this leads to Bebe retaking her child and leaving for China. I can understand how easily it would be to take back your baby in an area like Shaker Heights where nobody believes that security is necessary but the quick move to China was incredibly hurried. It happened out of nowhere and was difficult to believe. Honestly, if I was in Bebe’s situation and there was a possibility to go back to my native land with my baby, I would.
Before the actual fire, I remarked on how easily Izzy, Pearl, and Trip were forgotten. Yet, I’m not complaining about Pearl and Trip, they were exceptionally boring and under-developed. I’m not going to include Lexie because her plot ties into the central theme, so it was only natural that she would not be excluded from the narrative. Her arc was carried well, honestly and believably. Nonetheless, I’m disappointed that the other three, especially Izzy, were dropped until the very end considering Izzy’s dramatic exit. There was little to no development leading up to the ending which had me both pumping my fist in the air and perplexed. The story was left on a cliff-hanger! No! This is not a YA Fantasy series, you cannot do that to us. I need to know what happened to Izzy and the Warren’s! I will repeat my love for Mia over and over again but, it is true, she was used as a plot-device on many occasions. And I think this is because Elena Richardson embodies Shaker Height’s ideals and spirit. Elena Richardson is Shaker Heights and therefore, she takes centre-stage. By the end, she realises that her traditions and ideals have consequences, that her anger has driven her daughter away and finally, she has to grapple with whether she is the cage or the bird who flies free (a token that Mia leaves behind for Elena). It is up to Elena now to decide which road she takes. Will she be the cage, or will she be bird?
Progression means openness to new ideas and new experiences. It adapts to better suit the society it resides in. To question, to improve, to make new rules, and to break them once again when they become harmful. Progression is fluid, only fascism is fixed.
I urge you all to read this important book.
“Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way. Like after a prairie fire. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”
Have you read or are you planning to read Little Fires Everywhere? If you have, what are your thoughts on the issues on race and motherhood? Should race play a part in custody battles? Is it important to remain in touch with your culture, is love more important, or both? Define the qualities of a ‘mother’ and tell me what ‘mother’ means to you.
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