Sometimes, you read a short story that leaves you wanting more and makes you wish that the writer had extended it to a novel length.
With this novel, well written and crafted as it is, I wonder whether it could have been reduced to a short story. Or began life as a short story or a vignette and grew from there.
Family drama. Courtroom drama. Coming of Age. The novel explores all of these and they all intersect – bound by the constant exploration of motherhood – and it feels very carefully planned and constructed. And somehow left me wanting more rawness.
The novel opens as Lexie, Trip and Moody Richardson sit on the hood of their car in Shaker Heights, Ohio watching their mother as she watches their house burn down. Ng then tracks back other the months prior to the event in order to introduce a variety of conflicts and characters: the Richardson’s itinerant artist tenant, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl; Mirabelle McCollough – or May Ling Chow – the Chinese baby adopted by the McCollough family but tracked down and wanted by her birth mother Bebe; Lexie and Pearl growing up and discovering the joys and pleasures and responsibilities of sex. And Izzy, the wayward child of the Richardsons, struggling to find a place to fit into.
The city of Shaker Heights – if it is a city – I don’t profess to know beyond what Wikipedia can tell me, which is that “Shaker Heights is an inner-ring streetcar suburb of Cleveland, abutting the eastern edge of the city’s limits… Shaker Heights was a planned community developed by the Van Sweringen brothers, railroad moguls who envisioned the community as a suburban retreat from the industrial inner city of Cleveland” – seems to me to be the main character of the novel. The intensively planned and ordered city, designed to be harmonious and regulated to match. The home that Mia rents from the Richardsons is a clear symbol of the value of appearance in this world:
Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house—of renting, instead of owning—and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable.
Through the novel, Eleni Richardson starts to learn that each identical home, each regulated exterior, held a myriad of narratives and sacrifices and angst and love and loss. Even the regulated exterior of her own safe and secure home.
Ng uses a very omnipotent narrator: she relates – and there is a lot of exposition through the novel – backgrounds and stories for the characters, very carefully placed through the novel, before reminding us the reader that her characters do not and cannot possibly know this. An occasionally hints at a future outside the world of the novel too. I found the technique and the narrative voice somewhat distancing as a result, somehow cool. Perhaps that was deliberate: the character Mia is a photographer and that narrative voice may be a reflection of the distance between photographer and subject because of the camera lens. It may simply be Ng’s style: I’ve not read her first book, Everything I Never Told You.
The arrival in an established setting of a new character sowing – consciously or not – discord is familiar and Mia is drawn with a subtle brush, rarely being followed by the narrative, and was a sympathetic character. One aspect of the novel that could have been explored more – which I was intrigued by – was Pearl’s adoption as another sister by the Richardson children, each for their own reasons; and Izzy – and possibly Lexie – Richardson’s adoption by Mia as a daughter… or, possibly more accurately, their adoption of her as a mother. It was hinted – more than hinted, each characters explicitly said that they felt like that – but not developed and not explored.
What was beautiful was one of the final scenes: a package of photographs left by Mia for each of the Richardsons. Taking one example, Trip – the jock of the family – was left a photograph of a
hockey chest pad, lying in the dirt, cracked through the center, peppered with holes. Mia had used a hammer and a handful of roofing nails, driving each one through the thick white plastic like arrows, then prying it out again. It’s all right to be vulnerable, she had thought as she made each hole. It’s all right to take time and see what grows. She had filled Trip’s chest pad with soil and scattered seeds on it and watered it patiently for a week until from each hole, burgeoning up through the crack, came flashes of green: thin tendrils, little curling leaves worming their way up into the light. Soft fragile life emerging from within the hard shell.
These varied photographs were gorgeous and, it seemed to me, the heart of the novel. Which is why I wondered whether the novel began with just this one germ of an image – a packet of poignant images – and had filled out from there…
Overall, I did admire the novel and I liked parts but it felt too thoughtful and too intellectual and too crafted for me. It touched on issues of race, surrogacy, adoption – and the tug-of-love between the McColloughs and Bebe Chow should have been heart-breaking – but didn’t explore or delve into them.
I like to be dragged into the world of a novel viscerally and this didn’t do that for me.