Finished: January 21, 2018
An intricate story about mother and daughter relationships and the tension between following rules or dreams. As the story opens we see the Richardson’s house is burning down.
“Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there” [p 3]
The family is safe but they are all sure Izzy Richardson set the fire. The other siblings watch the fire:
“Beside them they felt the hole that Izzy, the freshman, the black sheep, the wild card, had left behind – though they were still certain, all of them, that this hole would be temporary” [p 5]
We then drop back a year – with side trips even earlier – to watch what led up to the fire. Izzy had health problems when she was born and her mother – usually referred to in the book as Mrs. Richardson in the story rather than by here given name of Elena – focused on Izzy with intense passion. “As time went on, the concern unhooked itself from the fear and took on a life of its own.” [p 110]
Mrs. Richardson is a rule follower; if you learn and follow the rules good things will happen.
“Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.” [p 161]
She is confronted by another mother/child of Mia – an artist – and her daughter Pearl who challenge this view. The tension in this dynamic is the driving energy of the novel. It is riveting to read how Izzy sees another way to live. But there are other mother/daughter relationships at play. Mia and her daughter, Pearl. Mia and her mother; Mia’s work friend Bebe and her daughter. Mrs. McCullough and her adopted baby. I especially like chapters 8 and 9 about a Madonna and child image in a museum which is affects those relationships.
Although I wanted to dismiss Mrs. Richardson’s pressure on Izzy as terrible; it is also understandable. Mrs. Richardson never saw the poster on the hospital wall that says “Anger is Fear’s Bodyguard.” [p 110] As a parent I know that anger and fear.
Finally, the art work Mia leaves for the Richardson family is beautiful and meaningful to each in a personal way.
I always enjoy reading some beautiful turns of phrase; and this book has plenty of them.
“Half an hour later, the dancing and the liquor and the sweet, heady rush of being eighteen had filled them both with a feverish flush” [p 44]
“The silence seemed to stretch itself out like taffy” [p 87]
“Beauty rolled off her in waves, like heat” [p 94]
“The roots of her irritation were long and many branched and deep.” [p 107]
“She had seen Pearl watching Tripp for months, like a mouse watching a cat, longing to be eaten.” [p 317]
Celeste Ng masterfully weaves the many story lines and the associated themes into a wonderful story.