Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.
This novel was our book club pick of the month, and I finished reading it during the second week of January, my first literary fiction of the year.
Written By: Celeste Ng
Published by: Little, Brown 2017
ISBN: 1408709724 (ISBN13: 9781408709726). Literary Awards: Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction (2017). Received an ARC of the book from Pansing. Book photos taken by me.
I read the hype surrounding this book last year. I know that it tackles issues on female relationships, rushes headlong to discussions on social class and privilege, and touches on the thorny polemics on race. With all this in mind, I devoured the story – and I am more than glad that it has lived up to expectations.
Our current reading theme has to do with contours of love. And this novel has an abundance of that: from love shared between parent and child, the intimacy of an adolescent couple who has discovered each other’s bodies for the first time, love between protege and genius student, love among siblings, love of (and being unfaithful to) one’s self. Yet despite all this talk on love, I wouldn’t call the novel romantic, in the least. More like – maddeningly-illuminating .. and painful.
Among all the characters in the novel, I found Mia Warren especially interesting: the photographer-artist-vagabond-gypsy-like mother of teenage Pearl. Mia captured my attention primarily because I teach a course elective in the university that looks into the psychology of high creatives and gifted/talented individuals – and Mia’s enigma is something that has fascinated me over the years, and one that I have spent hours studying, exploring, and knowing more about.
Quite a number of our book club members loathed Mia – finding her totally irresponsible as a parent, imposing her lifestyle on her daughter Pearl who didn’t ask for it; unforgivably selfish, and utterly without remorse – leading a few members to regard her as somewhat of a sociopath.
I tended towards the more sympathetic path – primarily because I’ve seen this kind of single-mindedness and resolute pursuit of one’s art to the exclusion of everything (or everyone) else among people I personally know. Granted that their genius does not justify their actions especially in terms of how it impacts other people (especially loved ones and family members) – but it is what it is. Most people who are ‘touched by fire’ are simply driven to be nobody else but themselves, regardless of other people’s judgments, those are irrelevant – and this is precisely what makes her all the more loathe-worthy for others, I guess? I hesitate to call her selfish primarily because I do feel that she genuinely did her best by Pearl, as far as she possibly could. Her self-possession and sense of pride also preclude any form of sympathy, such that her actions can then justifiably (and righteously) be perceived as primarily self-serving. However, I find that feeding one’s art – while part of one’s self – is also separate, almost like a deity or a daemon, among the high creatives, which can be all-consuming, and unforgiving too in its demands. I would rather call it self-absorption than selfishness. While technically, she is both, the former captures the sense of obliviousness as brought about by the need to feed and give in to that fire within her.
Mia is terrifying to people like Elena Richardson from Shaker Heights because the latter has lived her entire life living by the rules, dictated by certain strictures and norms that guarantee a measure of success and security. In fact, Elena Richardson has spent most of her adult life trying to stamp the little fires that rise within her, quieting them down, ensuring that they are all snuffed out before they can consume her, rendering everything safe as could be seen in this quote:
Mia, on the other hand, has an unremitting focus to remain true to her art. She carefully tends the fire within her, reified in her photography, her vision of life as she sees it, which unfolds as she goes along, without a clear system or plan. She couldn’t care less how other people think of her, because it doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. In fact, Mia strikes me as somewhat asexual. For a woman so feverishly committed to her art, she has only displayed that same level of passion and devotion towards three people in her life: her brother Warren, her mentor in New York whom she worshipped, and her daughter, Pearl. It’s like all the romance in her has been siphoned off by her camera – her tool for ensnaring the singular essence of her subject, rendering it alive by taking fragments of it and mixing it with something else in an assemblage of truth and beauty.
I wonder now whether she discards attachments easily because she knows that she needs to move on eventually, and she doesn’t want anything that would be too heavy to be packed in a suitcase; or if maybe she was simply built that way as an individual. Was her detachment a necessity, something that enabled her to survive? Or was it part of what makes her Mia, as she painstakingly aligns her experiences with her art – its completion a powerful statement that includes her keen observations, eye for the thrown-away pair of shoes, attention to crumpled sheets of paper containing secrets too damaging to keep in a drawer.
I found her relationship with her daughter Pearl to be marked by little fires as well: a series of scorching the earth and moving on to the next town to start anew, the ground fertile for something different. While there were certain occasions when the teenage Pearl annoyed me to no end, especially as she tries to appropriate a life that isn’t hers – there remains a quiet, steadfast clarity of each other’s love that has sustained them both through the years of moving restlessly from one city to the next. I found this quote especially compelling, mainly because I have a teenage girl of my own, and physical gestures of affection can be few and far between:
Their vagabond lifestyle as mother and child may also be Mia’s continual and repeated attempt to escape from her own past; fleeing from her own sins, bringing with her, Pearl, her redemption and the key to her deliverance. I was also taken with Izzy, Elena Richardson’s youngest daughter, who refuses to play by the rules, embraces (and even feeds) the conflagration within her, and is a living testament of an alternative to her mother’s gilded cage, her outright rebellion and testing the limits serving as sufficient proof that the cage exists, regardless of how comfortable it is. Yet if it is self-imposed and of one’s own making, does it still make it a cage? No better fools than willing fools, as the trite adage says.
The pace of the novel picked up for me when Pearl discovered a photograph of her mother in a museum, marking the gradual unraveling of Mia’s past and the secrets that haunted her and chased her from one town to the next. Then there is also the side story of adoption as a wealthy couple (family friends of the Richardsons) adopted an abandoned Chinese baby. It should be pretty straightforward, right? But what happens if the biological mother has decided to take her child back and is asking for a second chance? Should parentage be afforded by virtue of biology or race or is it social class and influence that determine whether one can be considered a good or fit parent? One can argue that the baby’s mother, a Chinese immigrant who knows very little English, already had the odds stacked against her, it is practically inevitable that she is unable to care for her own child. What constitutes a family, really? Is it exclusively defined by race, or should raising a child remain colourless – or is it disingenuous to even consider that a possibility? A few of our book club members also raised a very good point that if anything, Bebe should have been charged with child endangerment or child abandonment – instead of regarding her intention to take her child back seriously. Practically everyone was of the opinion that the child should not stay with her but rather with the adoptive parents, as flawed as they may be.
This is a novel that made me/us think and feel, despite myself. I am not really sure how I found the voice of the novel – the omniscient POV, I felt, seemed impersonal, especially given the intimate nature of the stories being narrated. I was thinking that perhaps it would have been even more powerful if it was revealed in the end that the unraveling of the story was narrated by .. say.. Pearl’s daughter, sometime in the future. Yet, perhaps, it is meant to sound that way, like an outsider shedding the skin of Shaker Heights and New York, easing off the skin of both spaces as the tale unfolds.
Find this novel. Read it and reflect about your own family secrets and the many little fires that eventually consume you.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: USA