In Shaker Heights, Ohio, a planned “Utopian” community where grass must not be grown more than six inches tall, the arrival of single mother Mia and her daughter, Pearl, is the first of the “little fires everywhere” that disrupt the seemingly peaceful community.
On an otherwise ordinary Saturday, the Richardson family’s house is burning down to its brick shell. The family watches from the lawn, hearing from firefighters that a fire had been set in the middle of each family member’s bed. The main suspect is Izzy, the youngest child, who happens to be missing. The characters hint that Izzy may have mental issues.
The book takes us back to the previous summer, when Mia and her daughter Pearl, 15, arrive in Shaker Heights, renting the upstairs half of a duplex from the Richardsons. Mia has moved the two constant times. Without time to form bonds with the outside world, they are very close. They rely on each other to figure out the community’s new rules, and drive outside town to collect free curbside furniture.
This habit intrigues a Richardson child, Moody, who has never been exposed to anything resembling poverty, or to a life that lacks the order and structure that rules in Shaker Heights. Moody and Pearl feed off each other, each showing the other a new way of life.
It is revealed that Mia is an artist, working odd jobs to support her and Pearl and occasionally selling her pieces, which Moody says are “startling,” for thousands of dollars. Her desire to stay under the radar undermines potential success.
Question: Do you notice similarities to one of our other book club picks?
Mia grows concerned about Pearl’s growing attachment (bordering on obsession) with the Richardsons, but allows it. She feels guilty that constant moves haven’t allowed Pearl to make long-term friends or put down roots, and doesn’t want to discourage her from forming lasting bonds.
After facing questions about her real father from Lexie Richardson, Pearl again asks Mia who her father is. Mia surprises Pearl by crying and leaving the room. The Richardson kids spend afternoons watching Jerry Springer as an anthropological experiment, thrilling in the disorder and chaos. Izzy does not join in on this routine, and the siblings compare her and her past acts of rebellion (though mostly harmless) to the characters on the show.
Question: Have you ever felt guilty watching a trashy talk show, like Maury or Jerry Springer? Um, Honey Boo Boo?
Lexie is driven to take Pearl under her wing, and Pearl talks Lexie into leaving the (orderly) mall for the chaos of a thrift store. The two bond over the experience. Meanwhile, Moody’s older brother, Trip, also starts noticing Pearl and the two boys begin to fight for her attention. Mia again worries that the kids are having too much influence over her daughter, just as Pearl agrees to write Lexie’s college application essay for her. An important bit of foreshadowing happens when Lexie suggests that in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, the miller’s daughter is actually the villain, for not keeping her promise to hand over her firstborn baby.
Pearl starts molding herself more and more after Lexie, and attends a Halloween party that Moody, as an underclassman, isn’t invited to. Lexie abandons her to have sex with her boyfriend (her own act of rebellion) and Pearl, feeling let down, calls Moody to come pick her up. He does, telling her that his family is selfish in an attempt to damage her view of them and bring the two of them closer together. Lexie feels and acts differently following the loss of her virginity.
Meanwhile, Mrs.. Richardson “checks in” on Mia, makes mental notes of the apartment’s shabby furniture, and offers to buy a piece of her art; but is offended when Mia’s thank-you isn’t overflowing with gratitude. Mrs. Richardson finds that Mia works at the Lucky Palace, a local Chinese restaurant (which will be important later on). She offers her a housekeeping job at the Richardsons’, which Mia accepts, mostly so she can see what Pearl is up to.
Question: Is Mrs.. Richardson (who is supposedly a journalist, and as such a worldly person) a believable character, even for Shaker Heights? Why is she never referred to using her first name, unlike Mia?
Pearl is not happy about her mother’s intrusion, but Mia takes full advantage of the opportunity to learn about the Richardsons and the ongoing changes in Pearl. Izzy, home after being suspended from school, opens up to Mia, telling her she was suspended after sticking up for a student when a teacher made racist remarks. Mia makes her realize that she has control over her own life choices, and encourages Izzy to get back at the teacher. The ensuing prank solidifies their bond, and Mia takes her under her wing as her photography assistant.
Question: Were you at all surprised to find that Mia and Izzy, the outsiders, would become friends?
Izzy and Pearl experience an odd trade-off: Izzy often pretends that Mia is her own mother, while Pearl is happy to be out from underneath her watchful eye. On a class trip, Pearl and Moody see a photograph they are certain is of Pearl and her mother (taken by a Pauline Hawthorne), titled “Virgin and Child No. 1.” When pressed, Mia becomes defensive. Izzy enlists her mother’s help in researching the photographer. When Mrs. Richardson’s research trail goes cold, she blames her daughter for the wasted time.
Mrs. Richardson recalls the difficult pregnancy and delivery of Izzy, noting that it never got easier for her and her last child because she was always concerned with her every move. A family friend, the McCulloughs, hold a birthday party for an adopted daughter, May Ling, whose name has been changed to Mirabelle. The baby was left at a fire station and given to the family, who was on an adoption waitlist. Izzy takes them to task for making up the child’s birthday and changing her Asian name. Meanwhile, Lexie is infatuated with the baby, and gushes about her to Mia.
Mia remembers that a co-worker at Lucky Palace, Bebe Chow, left her baby at a fire station around the same time as May Ling landed at the McCulloughs. Bebe confesses to having postpartum depression at the time, as well as being scared for her future as a new immigrant. Mia decides to inform Bebe of the McCulloughs’ adoption.
Bebe first calls, then shows up, to the McCulloughs only to be dragged away by police. Mia agrees to help her. The following morning, TV news crews show up at the McCulloughs’ door, capturing an image of Mrs.. McCullough holding an Asian baby. They pair the footage with an interview with Bebe. It goes viral, and Bebe retains a lawyer while Mr.. Richardson agrees to represent the McCulloughs. Izzy calls her dad a “baby stealer.”
Mrs. Richardson realizes Mia is the one who informed Bebe about the adoption (the two worked together at the Lucky Palace), and renews her search into her past as a form of revenge.
At a special lunch to celebrate Lexie’s admission to Yale, Mrs.. Richardson pries Pearl for some insight into her life. She uses the information to obtain a copy of Pearl’s gift certificate, which leads her on a path to identifying Mia’s parents.
The adoption case continues to spread throughout the Cleveland community, and many feel that it’s an issue of race, too. Lexie, who thinks Shaker Heights doesn’t “see” race, is forced to confront that assumption after hearing the opinion of her boyfriend, who is black. The issue divides families. Many feel the baby should be raised in a way that honors her Asian heritage, an upbringing the McCulloughs are unable to provide. Bebe is granted visitation rights.
Mrs. Richardson’s anger at Mia for disrupting Shaker Heights continues to grow. She is especially angry that Mia gets to do whatever she wants when no one else does, almost suggesting she is jealous of Mia’s freedom.
Question: Do you think a woman like Mrs. Richardson would be jealous of someone like Mia?
While all this is happening in Shaker Heights, the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal is happening to America. Pearl realizes everyone knows more about sex than she does. She finds herself alone at the Richardsons’ house with Trip, and takes advantage. The two begin their own clandestine affair, neither wanting to disrupt their relationship with the rest of the Richardson clan. Pearl begins lying to Moody, wanting to keep her hold on him while taking what she wants from Trip.
Lexie, who has been having sex with her boyfriend, Brian, finds herself pregnant. Though Lexie entertains the idea of keeping the baby, she and Brian come to the decision that an abortion is necessary (with Brian saying he doesn’t want to be the black kid who knocked up a girl before graduation). Lexie asks Pearl to accompany her, and when they get there, Peal finds that Lexie booked the appointment in her name.
Mrs. Richardson continues her quest to uncover Mia’s past, and arrives in Pittsburgh to interview her parents under the guise of working on an article about former teen athletes. Her parents reveal that they cut ties when Mia decided to act as a surrogate mother.
Question: Had you figured out Mia’s secret at this point? What did you think of Brian’s comment about Lexie’s pregnancy?
The narrative flashes back to 1980, revealing Mia’s evolution as an artist and her parents’ disapproval of her interests, which they deem impractical. She receives a scholarship for an arts school in New York, and does well, befriending her professor, Pauline Hawthorne, along the way. But the scholarship soon dries up; at the same time, she is approached by a man, Joseph Ryan, who asks her to be a surrogate for him and his wife — mainly because she looks just like her. He offers her $10,000, enough to pay for tuition.
Question: Would you ever consider being a surrogate? Is there an amount of money that seems right for the job?
So, things get depressing, with Mia allowing Madeline Ryan to inject her with Joseph’s sperm via a turkey baster. She eventually gets pregnant, and the couple move her to a studio apartment, gift her with maternity clothing and relish every update on the baby. Mia doesn’t come home for Christmas, but confides to her brother, Warren, about her pregnancy. Warren doesn’t approve but agrees to keep her secret. Soon after, Mia’s mother calls and informs her that Warren has been in a car accident. He dies, and Mia shows up for his funeral noticeably pregnant. Her parents refuse to let her attend the service.
Returning to New York, Mia packs her bags and flees, leaving behind for the Ryans $900 and their gifts. She drives to San Francisco, has the baby, and names her Pearl, after the child in The Scarlet Letter. She learns that her beloved professor, Pauline Hawthorne, has a brain tumor, and flies to New York to see her. Pauline photographs her and her daughter together. After her death, the photos arrive, along with a deal from Pauline’s agent in New York.
Mia’s parents give Mrs. Richardson the business card of a lawyer retained by the Ryans in their quest to locate Mia, and their child. Mia mothers Lexie following her abortion. She tries not to think too much about what Lexie’s behavior means for Pearl, but tries to talk to Pearl about sex. Pearl deflects her questions, and Mia feels that she is slipping away more and more.
Question: Do you fear your child’s adolescence?
The custody hearing begins, and the lawyers debate on Bebe’s reasoning for leaving May Ling (Mirabelle) behind as well as the McCulloughs’ ability to raise a child with an understanding for her birth heritage. The judge is unable to make a decision. Mrs. McCullough thinks that because she saw Bebe gain weight and then throw up (spoiler: she was bloated from food poisoning), she may have been pregnant. Mrs. Richardson manipulates a college roommate, who now works at the abortion clinic, into letting her see the records.
Mrs. Richardsons’ former roommate has a change of heart, but Mrs.. Richardson snoops anyway and finds Pearl’s name. She confronts Moody, but he informs her that Trip and Pearl are having sex. Mrs.. Richardson realizes she is not in any sort of control over her children.
The judge rules in favor of the McCulloughs, and strips Bebe of her visitation rights. Izzy arrives to Mia’s home to find Bebe distraught, and asks Mia if she will be OK. Mia says yes, using new growth that sprouts after a prairie fire as a metaphor. Later, she tells Bebe that May Ling will always be her child.
Mrs.. Richardson confronts Mia, barging into the apartment without knocking and exploding upon seeing Izzy’s jacket draped over a chair as if it belonged. She tells Mia she knows everything about her past, and kicks Mia out of the apartment. Mia in turn asks her what she gave up to follow such an orderly life.
Mia arrives at Pearl’s school and tells her it’s time to leave Shaker Heights. Pearl demands to know why. Back at home, while packing, Mia gives her a brief overview of her origin and the two reconnect, more so after Pearl learns of Mrs.. Richardson’s cruelty. Izzy stops by, and Mia isn’t sure what to say to her, other than remind her of the metaphor about prairie fires.
Izzy returns home and begins to put the pieces together. She realizes Lexie had the abortion, and tells Moody he was wrong for telling his mother about Pearl and Trip. She confronts Lexie, who thinks its funny that her mother thinks Pearl had the abortion. She then returns to the apartment to find Mia and Pearl gone for good. Izzy feels overwhelmed by the betrayals of her family and the departure of her newfound mother figure. She spends the night planning, and that morning sets fires to her home.
The narrative makes full circle, with the Richardsons watching their house burning. Izzy is missing — she has boarded a greyhound bus and plans to catch up to Mia and Pearl. Mother and daughter, on the run again, feel sorry for Izzy, who is stuck with a family that doesn’t understand her.
The Richardsons move into their now-vacant apartment, and find an envelope containing portraits of themselves. Taken in secret by Mia, they reveal parts of their personalities from Mia’s outside perspective. The envelope also contains the negatives, an assurance that no one else will see the photos.
The McCulloughs call Mr.. Richardson, informing him that Bebe has stolen May Ling in the night and fled to China. Authorities say the chance of tracking them down is slim. The novel ends with Mrs.. Richardson vowing to do whatever it takes to find Izzy, and daydreaming of a new life spent relentlessly searching for her daughter — a life more chaotic than any she has ever known.
Question: What do you think will happen to Izzy, and to Mia and Pearl? Do you think Mrs.. Richardson will contact the Ryans’ lawyer and give up information about Mia?