October 2020

I intended to read this very popular book long ago, but never could find a copy available when I was in the mood for it.  Now, though, with monumental fires burning in the West and smoke everywhere…what could be more timely than Ng’s second book?  I can tell you it was worth the wait.

In recent months, we’ve seen how a tiny spark can ignite fires of overwhelming and life-changing proportions in our environment.  At first we see only the devastation that feels incomprehensible.  Later we see the devastation replaced by regrowth, renewal, and regeneration.

What happens when a tiny spark ignites within a PERSON?  Does the same process occur?  Is it possible that this is a necessary part of our growth as humans?  Elena Richardson wonders:  “Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new?”  [p. 160]  Every character in the two families in Ng’s book experiences their own spark and ends the story changed from how they began.

It’s meaningful that this story takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland (as well as the birthplace of Paul Newman).  The Shakers were a communal Christian sect that currently has one surviving community in the U.S.  (You can learn more about them here.)

Shaker Heights was founded as a planned community, and it was planned down to the smallest details.  Ng describes the importance of the planning to inspire and enforce conformity to the point of perfection…at least in someone’s mind.  Following the rules was Commandment #1 in Shaker Heights.  Rules were there for a reason, and for some residents, that was comforting:  the risk that something might go wrong was minimized in their view.

Elena Richardson was one of those people.  We meet her as she watches her home burn as a result of small fires deliberately set in several bedrooms by her youngest daughter Izzy.  We learn later what spark ignited in Izzy to inspire her to make such a statement.  Nothing in Elena’s life has prepared her for such an unthinkable deviation from the rules.

The Richardson family consists of Elena, mother of 4 children born in 4 years and now in high school.  Her fondest wish as a young woman to have a family and home in Shaker Heights came true.  She has a small spark to be a journalist, but with a family to raise, she settles for a position on a small local paper.  Later she uses her journalism skills to set off her own conflagration.

Bill Richardson is a lawyer who earns a comfortable living to support his family and lifestyle.  The 4 children are Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy.  The 3 oldest are rather typical high school students for that time (mid-1990s) and place.  They basically coast along in their lives…until their own sparks ignite.  Scrappy Izzy is the “wild card,” actually Elena’s favorite.  She’s also the one who absorbs the most criticism from her mother (we do learn why) and the most grief from her siblings.  Izzy’s spark is strong enough to set off a literal fire and upend the lives of her family.

Into this rather boring mix enters the second family:  mysterious Mia and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl.  Mia is a photographer, but uses her skill and unique way of looking at the world to create unusual art.  She and her daughter are the antithesis of the Richardson family:  they frequently move to different towns and cities, traveling light like urban nomads, while Mia pursues her art and supports them both.  Based on this lifestyle, an alert reader might have wondered:  were they in witness protection?  Did Mia kidnap Pearl from an abusive environment?  The answer is no to both, but the truth is fascinating.

Mia and Pearl meet the Richardsons from whom they rent a small apartment.  Mia pursues her art, Pearl meets the Richardson children, and eventually Mia comes to work part-time in the Richardson household.  Pearl plays a part in the life of all 4 children.  I will leave it to the reader to learn WHICH part she plays in the life of each, but I assure you sparks were ignited in more than one way.

Izzy gravitates to Mia as a mother figure.  Mia doesn’t criticize her.  She listens to Izzy (as no one else does), and Izzy finds comfort there.  Her self-expression and creativity are expanded, not limited.  In other words, she gets from Mia what she NEEDS to set her own spark ablaze.

A second major theme explored in this book is motherhood.  There are different ways to be a mother and to express the mothering urge.  Women in Ng’s book give birth normally, as well as try to become mothers by adoption and surrogacy.  In the case of Mia and Izzy, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship between 2 unrelated women.  All these women have strong mothering feelings.

A third consideration concerns RULES.  As a young woman, Elena thought that all those rules governing life in Shaker Heights would keep her & her family SAFE.  Clearly she learned otherwise, in large part because of her own actions.  Sometimes those rules act to ensure that life will be UNSAFE, depending on whose spark is lit and how they express it.

“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing.  It so easily went out of control.  It scaled walls and jumped over trenches.  Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles.  Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch.  Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully, like an eternal flame:  a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze.  Carefully controlled.  Domesticated.  Happy in captivity.  The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.

This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well.  Of course she’d had to give up a few things here and there.  But she had a beautiful house, a steady job, a loving husband, a brood of healthy and happy children; surely that was worth the trade.  Rules existed for a reason:  if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”  [p. 161]

This book has left me with a great deal to think about.  I’ve deliberately not given away how many things worked out because the reader’s process of discovery seems to me a part of the value of this book.  I will say that all questions are answered, but probably not in ways one would expect.

The book is well-written with characters who feel like people you’d like to meet.  I especially like how Ng fleshed out the characters, described their pasts, so we can see how they arrived at the point where we meet them and can understand them better.

I will issue one warning, however:  there is danger that you may want to read this book in one sitting, or to read it several times in years to come.  I feel that way, and notice others did, too.  I hope there’s another book on the way.

This book is available at the Grover Beach Community Library, along with Ng’s first book Everything I Never Told You.

–Donna Rueff–