Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, move into the Richardson family’s rental house in Shaker Heights , Cleveland. Mia is an artist who does not liked to be tied down, who frequently moves around from one place to another and takes random part time jobs to earn just enough for her and Pearl to get by. The Richardson family is upper middle class, well known in the community and have lived in Shaker Heights their whole lives. As far as Mrs. Richardson could imagine, living in Shaker Heights is the perfect life in the perfect place. She always lived an orderly and regimented life. She was brought up to follow the rules and always strove for perfection. Mia, to her, was a different kind of woman, leading a completely different life. Mia seemed to make her own rules, with no apology.
Pearl and Mia soon develop friendships with the children of the Richardson family and become entangled in their lives. Pearl has never really had friends before because they have moved so much. Pearl becomes quick best friends with Moody. They are both two lonely, naive teenagers with sensitive personalities and bookish wisdom. Pearl is timid, quiet and unsure of herself. Moody is a sweet guy, a romantic at heart. Moody finds that Pearl is another poetic soul like him and he quickly becomes fascinated with her and her mother.
Pearl begins spending all her time at the Richardson’s home and is dazzled by their domestic perfection and confidence. There is Lexie, with her golden smile, easy laugh and warmness. There is Tripp, with his handsome looks and charm. And then there is Izzy, who cares what no one thinks and often does crazy things. Izzy and her mother have a troubled relationship. Her mother is always harder on Izzy, always criticizing her behavior, always less patient with her mistakes and shortcomings, always demanding more from her than her siblings. Izzy soon recognizes a kindred spirit in Mia. She hangs on to her every word, and seeks and trusts her opinion on everything. She becomes Mia’s assistant and starts pretending that Mia is her mother. Mia sees Izzy as a younger version of herself.
There is a side story to the dynamic relationships between these two families. A custody battle between Mia’s friend and Mrs. Richardson’s friend causes a lot of conflict between the two women who already don’t really like each other. Mrs. Richardson is a reporter and she begins digging into Mia’s past and we learn all about her buried secrets. “It was so easy, she thought with some disdain, to find out about people. It was all out there, everything about them. You just had to look. You could figure out anything about a person if you just tried hard enough.”
The book explores what makes someone a mother, is it biology or is it love? The ferocious pull of motherhood and its complexities is a huge issue throughout this novel.
At the end of the book, the Richardson home has been burned to the ground and the fireman says there were actually “little fires everywhere,” just like there were little fires everywhere within these characters. Some fires were put out, some exploded and some burnt to the ground. “Like after a prairie fire…It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow….People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.” Lovely book y’all. Just lovely.