I enjoyed this book. It’s quick, relatively light compared to a lot of my reading, and shows a lot of compassion towards a wide variety of characters. I don’t think it digs quite deep enough to be literary fiction, though it’s certainly more intelligently written than a lot of the “suburban drama and social issues” books out there.
This book focuses on the drama growing out of the enmeshment of two families. The Richardsons are prominent citizens in their planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, who rent a home to struggling artist Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl. The Richardsons have four teenagers of their own, all of whom are drawn to Mia or Pearl or both. But Elena Richardson, the mother, starts digging into Mia’s past when a controversial adoption case divides the town and the two women are on opposing sides. All of this leads to a conflagration, as we learn in the book’s first sentence.
What I most enjoyed about this book was its empathy and understanding toward its characters. Rather than painting people in black and white and dismissing some of them as just being lousy, it reaches out to turn everyone’s viewpoint into a sympathetic one. The omniscient narrator dips into the heads of even minor characters, which works well, drawing a full picture of events that allows readers a greater understanding than any individual character possesses. And the level of empathy is particularly noticeable around the adoption case, where the author shows an understanding of both the poor, desperate immigrant mother who abandoned her baby in a dark moment and the loving couple that want to adopt her despite their contented ignorance about her birth culture.
And yet, there’s still a certain remove from the characters that left me frustrated. If only the book had dug one layer deeper with the protagonists, I think this would have been a great novel. Perhaps it’s the amount of narrative summary (though there’s still a lot of scenes and dialogue) or the omniscient narrator (though that works well in many books) or the cramming of six or so “main” characters along with many more of lesser importance into a novel of average length rather than focusing on one or two protagonists (though again, this has been done successfully).
Or maybe it’s that certain moments don’t ring true.
The younger teens’ successful revenge on the bullying orchestra teacher reads like pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. Trip and Pearl’s relationship doesn’t quite ring true, and for that matter her friendship with Moody didn’t quite make sense to me either, probably because we don’t really see them together after their first meeting. Elena’s pursuit of Mia’s past also seems a bit over-the-top: Elena is initially presented as a principled woman, though somewhat blinded by her privilege, and her lack of qualms about her methods (as well as the fact that it was sparked simply by Mia’s telling Bebe about her daughter’s whereabouts – which weren’t exactly a secret) didn’t seem quite believable. And of course there’s the absurdity of the wealthy New York couple whose choice of a surrogate is a struggling college student picked up on the subway simply because she resembles the wife: I realize surrogacy wasn’t common in 1981, but common sense could still have told them that a girl who has never given birth before and is backed into a financial corner might have a change of heart about giving up her baby. And finally, the photographs Mia leaves behind, speaking on a deep level to each of the Richardsons, seemed to me a cliché but not very believable gesture.
At any rate, I enjoyed my time with this, though it didn’t rock my world. I would consider reading more from this author.