A novel set in an Cleveland suburb in the late 1990s that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives when they move to town.
...[a] delectable and engrossing novel ... a complex and compulsively readable suburban saga that is deeply invested in mothers and daughters ... What Ng has written, in this thoroughly entertaining novel, is a pointed and persuasive social critique, teasing out the myriad forms of privilege and predation that stand between so many people and their achievement of the American dream. But there is a heartening optimism, too. This is a book that believes in the transformative powers of art and genuine kindness — and in the promise of new growth, even after devastation, even after everything has turned to ash.
It’s this vast and complex network of moral affiliations — and the nuanced omniscient voice that Ng employs to navigate it — that make this novel even more ambitious and accomplished than her debut. If occasionally the story strains beneath this undertaking — if we hear the squeaky creak of a plot twist or if a character is too conveniently introduced — we hardly mind, for our trusty narrator is as powerful and persuasive and delightfully clever as the narrator in a Victorian novel ... Ng doesn’t miss an opportunity to linger over a minor character, even those we meet for only a moment whose voices might otherwise be rendered in parentheses. At the same time, she offers a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of those terrified of losing power. It is a thrillingly democratic use of omniscience, and, for a novel about class, race, family and the dangers of the status quo, brilliantly apt ... The magic of this novel lies in its power to implicate all of its characters — and likely many of its readers — in that innocent delusion. Who set the little fires everywhere? We keep reading to find out, even as we suspect that it could be us with ash on our hands.
[The] comparison between the outsiders and the comfortable middle class is sharp stuff, and Ng has great fun making not-so-subtle digs at the more parochial characters, balancing their myopia with small cracks of insight ... It’s a little bit Desperate Housewives crossed with racial issues on a soundtrack by Alanis Morissette, but as she did in the first half, Ng parses both sides of the interracial adoption argument with fluent prose ... But situations can move a story only so far. After some time, it becomes clear that Ng’s keenness to write a think piece on interracial adoption is greater than her desire to truly inhabit these characters and their desires. Regrettably, even Mia — who Ng frames as the artist-as-truthteller — remains one note, reducing the effectiveness of her arguments about showing people as she sees them. As for the Asian characters, whose role in part is to provide the chorus of dissent against the McCulloughs, they also fall under tropes. Although the stereotypes are sympathetic as opposed to negative (the benevolent neighbor, the desperate mother), they’re never afforded the same depth of emotional life — however limited — that the white characters are. It’s a huge disappointment. Without fully giving voice to the community central to the inciting incident of the novel, Ng risks reinforcing their marginal nature and fortifying middle-class myopia instead of imploding it.