I had actually decided not to read this book by Celeste Ng. I liked her first book, but I didn’t love it as much as everyone else seemed to, and everything I heard about this book was that it was good, but not as good as her first. So I decided, if I didn’t like the first one all that much, I wouldn’t want to waste my time on this one.
Then my book club decided to read it so I went ahead and got a copy from the library.
Again, I liked it, I didn’t love it. I found that Ng’s first book hasn’t really stuck with me – I read it and then I forgot about it – and I wonder if this one will turn out to be the same.
This one takes place in the late ’90s in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the first planned community and Ng’s hometown when she was growing up. It starts when Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, move into town. Mia is an artist who is starting to make a name for herself, but she still does odd jobs to help make ends meet. They’re poor, but they’re not starving. Every time Mia finishes a project, they move to a different town, but now that Pearl is sixteen, Mia has promised her that this is their last move. They end up renting the second story of a two-flat from Elena Richardson, a woman who has lived in Shaker Heights all her life and thinks it’s the best place ever.
Shaker Heights is your pretty typical, upper-middle class neighborhood that votes primarily for Democrats and thinks it’s much more enlightened than it is.
Elena inherited the building from her parents. She and her family now live in a nice, big house with a perfectly manicured lawn, so she doesn’t need the extra building. She rents it out for less than it’s worth to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to live in Shaker Heights and considers it a charity – even though she uses the rent money to pay for things like lavish vacations for herself and her family.
Elena is a woman who has always lived by the rules, whereas Mia has always followed her heart and Elena clearly resents Mia for it. Mia has less money and stability, but she’s probably happier. Elena thinks about all the sacrifices she’s made in order to follow the rules and she resents Mia for carving her own path – she thinks if the rules apply to her, they should apply to everyone.
The clash between the two women comes after Elena’s friend, Linda McCullough, adopts a Chinese baby that was found outside the local fire department, wrapped in blankets against the freezing winter night. Having suffered multiple miscarriages and waiting forever on the wait list for a baby, Linda is ecstatic to finally have a baby of her own to love.
When Mia hears about where the baby came from, she thinks she knows who the mother is. For weeks, she’s been listening sympathetically as Bebe Chow, a coworker at the Chinese restaurant where she’s been working part time, sobs about having lost her baby. The baby wouldn’t take milk from her breast and she couldn’t afford formula and the father had bailed as soon as he found out she was pregnant. She had left a good job as a receptionist in San Francisco to follow him to Shaker Heights and her English wasn’t great, so she was struggling to make ends meet. She didn’t know about any of the government assistance programs that could have helped her out and she probably had undiagnosed postpartum depression when she pinned a note to her baby’s blankets and left it where she knew it would be found and cared for.
As a mother herself, Mia feels for Bebe. She thinks about Pearl and how convinced she is that no one could possibly love Pearl as much as she does. At the same time Linda is convinced that she couldn’t love Mirabelle any more if she had come out of her own body and, personally, I believe both of them.
Mia decides to tell Bebe where her baby is and how she can go about fighting for custody (since she can’t afford an attorney). She goes public with it and in the ensuing legal battle (both in the courts and in public opinion) it becomes clear that, no matter how much the McCulloughs love their new baby, they’re not prepared to raise a Chinese child and give her a sense of her heritage (they think feeding her rice and keeping Asian prints around the house qualifies).
Meanwhile, the Richardsons are having their own debates on race. Elena thinks the end of racism means becoming “color blind” and treating everyone the same. She goes so far as to say the world would be a better place if everyone adopted children of different races. She’s clearly confused about the difference between accepting other races and cultures vs. assimilating everyone else into white culture.
Her daughter, Lexie, is similarly confused. She’s dating a black guy, and while she points out that it’s not even an issue, when she brings up the possibility of the two of them having a baby (as a subtle way of trying to introduce the fact that she’s pregnant) he points out that getting a girl pregnant while still in high school is exactly what society expects of him, whereas they’d be much more forgiving of a white kid doing the same thing.
The baby scandal drives a wedge between the Richardsons and the Warrens. Since Mia is the one who told Bebe about Mirabelle, Elena quickly decides Mia is the enemy and sets out to find anything she can about Mia to destroy her credibility and it ends with Mia and Pearl leaving town.
I have to say that the most impressive part of this book was how much I could relate to almost all of the characters. Elena Richardson is kind of set up as the villain, but she’s not entirely unsympathetic. As someone who is still struggling with the rule-following version of myself and the version who wants to follow her heart, I could really relate to both Elena and Mia.
And while Bebe’s story of losing her baby broke my heart, so did Linda’s story of finally getting the baby she always wanted and falling in love with it over a series of months before someone comes along and threatens to take her away.
Again, I liked this book, I didn’t love it, but it’s certainly an accomplishment and I’m definitely interested to see what Ng does next.
What did you read this week? Anything else that made you feel for both sides of an argument?