This novel’s set-out is simple: In Shaker Heights, everything is perfect. The city has been planned perfectly; the street lay-out is designed to eliminate traffic problems and there are rules for what shades of paint are allowed for each neighbourhood so that the houses look harmonious together – it’s a city where everything is planned and therefore nothing bad can happen. What sounds like a futuristic idea is reality, though. The author herself has been living in Shaker Heights, Ohio during her teenage years.
Set in this perfect world is the fictitious Richardson family. They’re beautiful and rich and self-confident because life has never not given them what they’d wanted. But suddenly, two wild souls emerge into their perfect world: Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl. Mia, an artist and single mother has always been on the run, never staying in one place for longer than she needed to finish her current art project. This time, all should be different. But as the two families entwine and then untangle themselves again, they find themselves newly regrouped on different sides of the issue which threatens to divide the whole town: An adoption case about a young Chinese-American baby. The birth mother wants her baby back, the soon-to be adoptive parents don’t want to give “their” baby up. The case evolves into a personal issue for the Richardsons and the Warrens and secrets from both families’ pasts start to unravel until it’s time for them all to decide on what’s right and what’s wrong.
This book has a great many aspects that are interesting to talk about. I was lucky enough to attend a reading of it this week and get an insight into the author, Celeste Ng’s, own thoughts about her work. There are many powerful questions that she leaves hanging in the room. What makes a good mother, a happy childhood? Is it warmth, even if it’s always in different places? Is it steadiness, a good base where nothing lacks but a slight barrier always keeps them at bay? Will a baby be happier with her birth mother due to the bond she still holds with her Asian heritage, even if the mother has given the baby away once, even if out of complete helplessness? Are mistakes to be forgiven? Are there things which are so bad that they are irrevocable, no matter how much you’ve changed?
What does it mean to be a woman in a world still dominated by men?
I like how all the while, Ng doesn’t seem to be imposing her own views on the reader, but insists on us labouring on these issues by ourselves and coming up with our own solutions. She doesn’t answer any of the questions. She just asks them, gently, strewn about the novel, asked in characters, in sympathies. It’s difficult to make up your mind.
Ng did not only talk about her own book, though, she also spoke about general issues in the world today. The whole conversation showed her quick wit and her cleverness. There’s something she said which has really stuck with me. When asked by the moderator about political issues in the book, she told a story. She said that around thanksgiving last year, she was asked alongside a few other authors to contribute to an article by talking about things she’s grateful for. He added: “Nothing political, please”. And she took a long look at her life and she decided that what he asked was not possible. “I’m thankful for my parents,” she said, “they’re immigrants. I’m thankful for my sister who has a physical disability and our president makes fun of disabled people. Just being a woman is a political issue in this time and age. So, there was no way for me to think about my life in non-political terms.”
After the reading, I asked her to sign my copy of her book. I told her that my biggest dream was to become an author, too. She smiled and wrote into my book:
go out and set your own (literary) fires.”
I hope someday I will.