Just enough time to slip a review in under the wire! This is a book club book for me and I was looking forward to reading it. I liked it, but didn’t love it, which was a surprise given all of the great reviews it received. It took me a while to read, but really shouldn’t have. It’s not a long or complicated book. I’m not sure if that was because I was fitting it in around holiday goings on or if it wasn’t engaging enough to hold my interest for more than a chapter at a time. That being said, there was maybe too much going on in this book. I think that might have been why my interest in it waned.
The story centers on the intertwining of two very different families. The roaming artist Mia and her daughter Pearl and the wealthy Richardson family that they rent an apartment from. When Pearl begins spending more and more time in Shaker Heights at the Richardson’s home, her life becomes tangled with three of the Richardson children: Moody, Lexie and Trip. Initially forming a close friendship with Moody, Pearl begins to idolize the popular Lexie and to fall for the star athlete Trip. Meanwhile, the youngest black sheep of the Richardson family, Izzy, escapes the Richardson house to Mia and Pearl’s apartment. Here, Izzy basks in the thoughful attention of Mia. If you are thinking that this is a blueprint for a John Hughes movie, you would not be wrong.
What Ng does with this Hughesian blueprint, however, is surround it with two additional story lines that never quite mesh enough with the main story line for me. One of these tangential narratives is taken from Mia’s past and is, by far, the most intriguing. It would have been a novel in and of itself. The second narrative takes place in the present but bridges both Mia’s world in Shaker Heights and the Richardson’s peer group. While that could ALSO have been it’s own novel as well, it wasn’t as well fleshed out as Mia’s story. In the end, neither of these threads really tightened the main story. Too much was happening and any ties that bound it all together felt a little too forced. Little fires everywhere, indeed.
Another issue that I had was lack of any character to root for. Ng tries to give a little depth to the Richardson family, but their privilege oozes out of every pore. Even after offering many hurdles to slow them down and make them sympathetic, I’m not sure that it worked. I couldn’t even get behind poor Pearl. She was a Molly Ringwald character. Falling for the wrong guy while ignoring what was right in front of her.
However, what I found the hardest to swallow was Mia. Ng’s portrayal of Mia seemed to be skewed toward sympathetic and heroic. Nope. Just, nope. While Mia possessed more depth in her little finger than all of the other characters put together, there wasn’t much heroic about her. Mia wasn’t raised in an affluent family, but they were definitely portrayed as middle class. Having parents unwilling to pay for an art school education that they find impractical is a tough blow but not an insurmountable obstacle for a smart and talented young white woman. When Mia’s “pride” is what keeps her from accepting help from the many people willing to lend her a hand, the choices she makes that alter the way she must live from now on don’t make her a hero. Lighting fires and starting over from scratch isn’t heroic, it’s avoidance.
I’m not knocking Ng’s writing style. She is a solid writer. There was just too much getting shoe horned in here and the contrast that Ng was trying to make between the families didn’t hold up well under scrutiny. Sorry to end on a bummer note. It wasn’t a terrible book. I’d give it a solid 3 stars. It just wasn’t the book for me.
See you all next year! I’m in it for a half-Cannonball for sure and I’ll see how it goes. Hats off to those of you who full-Cannonball it and then some year after year!