The affluent and well-tended community of Shaker Heights, Ohio was created nearly one hundred years ago with the aim to build a suburban utopia. Precisely planned and governed by copious rules and restrictions, the community aims to be perfect in every way. Shaker Heights has excellent schools, no crime, generous community resources, natural beauty and a uniform look and feel that sends the message to visitors that Shaker Heights is flawless. Being a Quaker village, the town does welcome some poor and disenfranchised individuals into its utopia… as long as they are willing to hide any of the problems or imperfections behind a well-tended facade. The wealthy living there feel not only entitled and safe, but also virtuous for allowing their “less than” neighbors to stay.
“Shaker Heights has been founded…with the idea of creating a utopia. Order — and regulation, the father of order — had been the Shaker’s key to harmony. They had regulated everything to…make a little refuge in the world. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shaker’s had lived it so strongly it has seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up their with a deep propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws.” 22-23
Into this community come Mia Warren — a wayward artist and jane-of-all-trades — and her teenage daughter Pearl. The mother and daughter move into a rental property owned by Elena and Bill Richardson; whose great wealth allows them to earmark the rental for “needy” tenants. Having lived a nomadic and often spare lifestyle up until now, Mia has arrived in Shaker Heights with a promise to Pearl: they will stay put long enough for Pearl (a genius student) to finish her diploma at the community’s elite public high school and get into college.
Almost immediately, Pearl and Mia draw the attention of the Richardson’s four children. The two sons in the family are drawn to Pearl with her eccentric, bohemian beauty and her stunning intelligence. The oldest Richardson’s daughter Lexie, sees a shy and slightly nerdy girl to take under her wing and Izzy, the youngest daughter, becomes enamored with Mia. To Izzy, Mia is everything the other mothers in Shaker Heights are not: wild, non-conformist, and artistic — a woman who does not care at all about following the rules or fitting in.
Mia, despite her initial unease at the rigidity of the community, settles in once she realizes her daughter is thriving in school and has made friends with the Richardson children. But soon her unease returns, as Pearl begins to grow even closer with the wealthy, wild, Richardson kids: mimicking their behavior and allowing them to assert more and more influence over her.
“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person, your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. Each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be to return to that place again.” 122
Meanwhile, Elena Richardson notices that her daughter Izzy’s infatuation with Mia continues to grow and (like Mia) worries about the influence this very different, wild, rule-adverse woman has over her daughter. As a woman who has build her life around restraint and obedience, Mia represents someone who is determined cause trouble and upset the “natural” order of things. A solution presents itself: Mia will work part-time as the Richardson’s housekeeper and both women can keep an eye out on the other.
“All her life, Elena had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Better to control the spark and pass it from one generation to the next. 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.” 161
Mia Warren has spent her adult life hiding and running, but is determined to keep her head down and allow her daughter these few years to be a normal teen. However, Mia is inadvertently drawn into a local scandal — one that pits a poor immigrant woman against one of the town’s wealthiest families — that threatens to expose her secrets to the world, and more importantly, to Pearl.
Once the initial story has been established, Ng’s wonderful writing and story-telling really get a chance to deepen and pull readers further in. Soon we get glimpses deep into the hearts of each of the characters — teen and adult — and see their pain, their worries, and learn more about what motivates their actions. It is in this second half of the book where the author’s characters really shine, and where she is able to present a series of troubling mysteries that she expertly unravels for us.
A wonderfully written and compelling story about what it means to be a mother; what it means to be a family; and what the risks are to disobeying the rules…and the (sometimes even greater) risks to following them.