Genre: Chick Lit
Narrative Style: Third person omniscient narrator
Synopsis: Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, arrive in Shaker Heights, a carefully planned, quiet suburb, with the intention of at last settling down. Pearl immediately makes friends with Moody Richardson, the son of their landlord, Elena Richardson and he quickly introduces her to the rest of his family. The Warrens are different from the sort of people who usually live in Shaker Heights. Mia is an artist, a nomad and she doesn’t fit the Shaker norm. Soon the equilibrium of this placid suburb is shaken.
Time on Shelf: About a year. People seemed to love this book and the TV series so I decided to give it a go.
Let’s start with what was good about this book. I’m always a bit of a sucker for a outsider arrives in suburbia and shakes it up a bit sort of story. I know it’s a cliche but it is so enjoyable to watch safe comfortable people suddenly see a different side of life. Mia Warren, it is immediately clear, is the very person to do this. We don’t meet Mia properly straightaway but are given glimpses of her through the eyes of Pearl. Pearl has to explain why Mia doesn’t have a proper job but works part time in a Chinese restaurant in order to have some money but also have time for art. They have never settled anywhere before but Mia has promised that this time they will and Pearl immediately begins to put down roots. Mia is clearly different from women like Elena Richardson with their careful plans which always come to fruition and their seemingly perfect families.
At the start, it seems like this is going to be a story about Moody and Pearl. Moody is a likeable character, lacking the confidence of his older brother, Trip, who falls for Pearl almost immediately. Their friendship was sweet and I was quite taken by it and the ways meeting the Richardsons’ and seeing how the other half live affected Pearl who had never really had any friends before, never mind affluent ones. However, this was not the novel’s focus for long as we start to hear more from the adults.
This was one of the problems with this novel for me. At the beginning, when Mrs Richardson wakes up and realises that her house is on fire, she knows instantly that her daughter Izzy is responsible. I thought that this might be a focus along with Pearl and Moody’s relationship. But it isn’t. Apart from the backstory of why Mrs Richardson found it so hard with Izzy, there really isn’t much about it. This seems a shame as Izzy is the black sheep – like Mia she doesn’t fit the Shaker Heights’ mould. Instead, we get Mia’s backstory, Mr and Mrs Richardson’s backstory even the backstory of the family friends, the McCullochs who have adopted a Chinese baby after years of fertility struggles. A lot of this is in long flashbacks which I felt interrupted the narrative flow.
The story is an interesting one which touches on many issues around the idea of motherhood – surrogacy, transracial adoption, abortion, the idea of what it means to be a mother. It may be that this moral overload was just too much for the story to handle. Especially given that it clearly sets out what the reader is supposed to think.
Transracial adoption is a difficult issue and the writer does show both sides of the argument. Battle lines are drawn and the reader is clearly meant to side with Mia who thinks the baby should be returned to its mother. And, of course, when the people on the other side say they don’t see race and think that giving the child Chinese food is all they need to do to teach the child about its culture then it is easy to make that decision. It’s very easy to make moral decisions when the writer makes everything black and white. The only thing the McCullochs really have going for them is the fact they have money and, of course, that is what wins that day.
This is another problem. The writer knows what she wants the reader to think and she makes sure that is what they think. She doesn’t allow the reader to make up their own minds about the characters. I found this irritating. I’m capable of making my own moral decisions. I must admit that by the end of this, I didn’t really like any of the characters. Really no one comes out of this covered in glory. Mia and Pearl are on the run again. Mia, for all the writer seems to want to place her in the role of perfect mother, has made some frankly disturbing decisions and is far from being morally perfect. Of course, as is the way of these stories, after the damage has been done the outsider needs to go but I would have found it more satisfying if she had stayed and faced the music for once.
The worst thing for me though, and the main reason it didn’t get a higher rating was the way the narrative voice shifted viewpoints. It was incredibly annoying. A paragraph might start from one point of view and then, because there was something the reader needed to know, it would shift viewpoint so we could get that knowledge. Then it might shift back to the first viewpoint or it might shift again. I know that with third person narration, you get shifting viewpoints but the number of times this might happen in a short space of time was disorientating and, again, interrupted the narrative flow.
Overall, this wasn’t a bad read. All of the characters were changed by their interaction which was pleasing. It’s not a new story and it’s not a subtle one but it did hold my interest.