Shaker Heights is the kind of community where garbage is stored always out of sight from the street, and every last detailed is planned, from the diversity of its population to the color scheme of each house. When a free-spirited artist, Mia, and her daughter Pearl move to town, their lives become entangled with the members of the Richardson family, each of whom are either enamored with or infuriated by Mia and Pearl’s nonconformity. After a public scandal arises surrounding the custody of an abandoned baby, everyone in town is obliged to take sides in a controversy that will put ambiguous ethics at odds with family loyalties.
The novel has a nostalgic feel from the pre-Internet late 90s, when there was still some mystery in the lives of teenagers, and digging into other people’s past required some old-school sleuthing. Celeste Ng deftly weaves through different time periods and perspectives, as each of the characters confronts the weight of their past decisions and struggles to move forward without casting judgment on themselves and others.
Set in a suburb founded on the idealism of planned order, the story peels back the façade of a community free from discrimination, conflict, and uncertainty. Messy emotions are unearthed. Fires, real and figurative, are ignited. Ng takes readers on a journey through uncomfortable gray areas with no clear way out.
“You’ll always be sad about this,” Mia said softly. “But it doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. It’s just something that you have to carry.”