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On a Saturday afternoon in May 1997, in the planned suburban community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, Mrs. Elena Richardson, still in her robe, watches from the lawn as a fire blazes through her house. The night before, the tenants in a rental property she owns—Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl—had dropped off the key to the property in her mailbox and moved out. That day had been a difficult one for Mrs. Richardson, so she had decided to sleep in. When she was awakened by the smoke detectors, she searched the bedrooms for three of her children—Lexie, a senior in high school; Trip, a junior; and Moody, a sophomore. But she did not search for her fourth child—Izzy, a freshman. None of the children were in the house, but Mrs. Richardson saw a fire burning in the middle of each bed. By the time the fire department has the blaze under control, Lexie, Trip, and Moody have come home, but Izzy is nowhere to be found. As they watch smoke billow from the house, Lexie, Trip, and Moody assume that Izzy, the troublemaker of the family, set the fire. Mr. Richardson returns home from work.
The story moves back to eleven months earlier, June 1996. Mia Warren, an artist, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Pearl, move into the upstairs floor of Mrs. Richardson’s rental property. The wealthy Richardsons don’t need the rental income, but Mrs. Richardson rents to people she feels are needy and deserving. Mia and Pearl soon learn the many rules that regulate life in Shaker Heights. They do not have much money and so also learn where they can buy things on discount and pick up discarded belongings.
Curious about these new tenants—especially Pearl, whom Mrs. Richardson calls “brilliant”—Moody rides his bike over to their home and sees Pearl arranging the pieces of a bed on the front lawn. She lies down among the pieces, and Mia takes her picture from her second-floor window. Pearl then acknowledges that Moody has been watching and asks if he wants to help. Together they bring the pieces to her bedroom, where Pearl skillfully assembles the bed with tools. Pearl tells Moody she has never had her own room before and, to herself, remembers the many places she and her mother have lived. Moody feels impressed and attracted to her and asks what she is doing the next day.
In the weeks following their first meeting, Moody shows Pearl all around Shaker Heights. He, in turn, learns about Mia and Pearl’s lifestyle. Mia has a part-time job at the Chinese restaurant Lucky Palace. While earning just enough to get by, she shops at thrift stores, brings home leftover food from the restaurant, and repurposes old bedsheets. Pearl tells Moody that her mother’s real job is her art—she takes photographs and then doctors the negatives or prints to convey different meanings. Sometimes she creates unusual objects and photographs them. Her photographs are sold by Anita, a friend and gallery owner in New York, but Mia refuses to go to New York herself.
When Mia finishes a project, which may take four to six months, she and Pearl go on the road again, sometimes sleeping in their car, until they find a new spot to live where Mia feels inspired. This time, however, Mia has promised Pearl they will stay in Shaker Heights. Moody feels enthralled with Pearl and decides the only way he can keep her interest is to introduce her to his family. When Pearl enters the Richardsons’ household for the first time, they strike her as the perfect image of a family.
The Richardsons warmly welcome Pearl, and she begins spending a great deal of time at their house. To Pearl, they seem effortlessly confident and beautiful. The house itself and all its trappings suggest a permanence that Pearl has not known. Mrs. Richardson especially is affectionate toward Pearl, who is impressed that Mrs. Richardson works as a reporter for a local newspaper. At first, Mia feels pleased that Pearl and Moody have become friends, but later she becomes concerned by Pearl’s infatuation with the Richardsons.
When school starts, Pearl and Moody—both sophomores—share many classes. After school, Pearl goes to the Richardson house to watch TV with Moody, Lexie, and Trip. Izzy stays upstairs. Pearl develops a crush on Trip and sits next to him on the couch every day, with Moody claiming her other side. Lexie and Trip ridicule Izzy, but Moody defends her. Lexie and Trip share stories about Izzy’s odd behavior. Lexie insists she doesn’t see race because her boyfriend Brian is Black. Lexie asks Pearl if she knows who her father is, something Pearl has long wondered about. Once, Pearl even asked Mia if she had been wanted as a baby, to which Mia, crying, answered yes.
Lexie begins to take an interest in Pearl, who she feels is timid, quiet, and somewhat pitiful. She brings Pearl to the mall to buy clothes, but Pearl, not having much money, suggests they go to the thrift store. Lexie also gives Pearl some of her own clothes. Trip notices Pearl’s changed appearance and compliments her. Moody gives Pearl a blank notebook in which she can write her poetry, partly to counteract Trip’s attention.
One day, Lexie suggests that she and Pearl go to Pearl’s home after school. Moody comes along, resentful of Lexie’s presence. Mia feels somewhat upset to see them, not liking outsiders to come into her home, but acts friendly and makes popcorn as the teens talk. Lexie explains that she’s applying to Yale; she likes the idea of being a train ride away from Princeton, where her boyfriend Brian will be attending. However, she complains about having to write an essay that retells a story from a different perspective. When Lexie thinks of rewriting “Rumpelstiltskin” with the miller’s daughter as the villain for not giving up her baby as promised, Mia loudly disagrees and leaves the room. Pearl offers to write an essay for Lexie, who happily accepts.
Pearl writes Lexie’s college essay, and every day she wears clothes or makeup Lexie has given her, which bothers Mia and Moody. To reward Pearl for writing the essay, Lexie invites her to a friend’s Halloween party. When Trip says he is also going, Pearl accepts, reneging on a promise she had made to Moody to watch a movie together. At the party, everyone drinks, mostly to excess. Pearl spots Trip and waits to talk to him, but soon he disappears. Meanwhile, Lexie’s boyfriend Brian shows up, and the two leave together, planning to have sex for the first time. Deserted and a little drunk, Pearl calls Moody. Though too young to have his license, Moody drives his mother’s car to pick Pearl up and drive her home.
The next Tuesday, Mrs. Richardson stops by Mia and Pearl’s home to check on them and her property. She’s impressed by Mia’s photographs hanging on the walls, but there is little furniture, and she feels both uneasy and intrigued by Mia’s different lifestyle. Mrs. Richardson offers Mia a part-time job cleaning and cooking at the Richardson house. Mia sees that there is no way she can refuse, but she also sees the job as a way of again becoming a part of Pearl’s life, so she accepts.
Pearl feels upset that Mia will be coming to the Richardsons’ house. Mia cleans the house in the morning, when the family is away, goes home to work on her art, and then returns at five to cook dinner. One morning, Izzy appears in the kitchen while Mia is cleaning. Izzy was suspended from school for breaking the music teacher’s bow and throwing it in her face. Mia makes Izzy a broiled sugar sandwich as Izzy explains that Mrs. Peters, the music teacher, had picked on and humiliated a shy Black student. Mia then asks Izzy what she is going to do about it, which startles Izzy.
Three days later, Pearl and Moody stop Izzy from toiler-papering Mrs. Peters’s house. Mia explains that targeting Mrs. Peters alone will only get Izzy in more trouble. Izzy plans a different revenge and talks Moody and Pearl into helping her. They stick toothpicks into all the door locks at school, jamming them shut. Chaos erupts, and the custodian needs several hours to dislodge all the toothpicks. Locked out of the teachers’ lounge, Mrs. Peters reluctantly uses the girls’ bathroom. But having waited too long, she urinates on the floor, sending girls giggling from the room. Izzy becomes fascinated by Mia and tells Mia she wants to be her assistant. Feeling a connection with Izzy, Mia agrees.
Every day after school, Izzy walks to Mia’s house to be with her, while Pearl walks to the Richardsons’ to be with Lexie, Trip, and Moody. While working at the Richardsons’, Mia has noticed that Mrs. Richardson is hard on Izzy and critical of her, whereas Mia compliments Izzy and supports her. One day in November, Pearl and Moody go to the art museum on a class field trip. They see a photograph of Mia holding a baby in her arms. After school, they return to the museum with Lexie and Izzy to see the photo again. When Pearl asks Mia about the photo, Mia suddenly becomes distant. She implies that she may have modeled for the photograph when she was an art student and that she doesn’t recognize the photographer’s name, Pauline Hawthorne.
That night, Mia doesn’t kiss Pearl good night for the first time ever. Izzy, determined to learn about the photograph and Mia, researches Pauline Hawthorne and discovers she was a famous photographer. Izzy then asks her mother to find out more. Mrs. Richardson tracks down Anita Rees, the New York art dealer who sold the photograph. But Anita refuses to tell her anything and hangs up. Mrs. Richardson decides the search is not worth her time.
Izzy, a difficult baby and strong-willed child, had been born prematurely with major health concerns. Not only was Mrs. Richardson constantly anxious about Izzy, but Izzy upset Mrs. Richardson’s sense of control over her life. Consequently, Mrs. Richardson has unwittingly tried to restrain Izzy while constantly criticizing her. The weekend after Thanksgiving, the Richardsons attend a birthday party at the McCulloughs’ house for their baby, Mirabelle, a Chinese infant who was left at a fire station ten months earlier. The McCulloughs, unable to have a baby of their own, are in the process of adopting Mirabelle.
At the party, Mrs. Richardson reprimands Izzy when she criticizes Mrs. McCullough for giving the baby a new name—a note with the baby said her name was May Lin. Lexie takes an extreme interest in baby Mirabelle. When she tells Mia about Mirabelle, Mia immediately thinks of Bebe Chow, a young Chinese woman she works with at the restaurant. A year earlier, Bebe had a baby girl but was abandoned by the baby’s father. Poor, jobless, and unable to care for her baby, Bebe left her at a fire station. Later, Bebe tried to find the baby but was told she had given up her rights. Mia phones Bebe to tell her about Mirabelle.
Bebe comes to Mia and Pearl’s home, frantic and sobbing. She tells them she called the McCulloughs and said she was May Lin’s mother, but Mrs. McCullough hung up on her. She then went to their house, but the McCulloughs called the police. Mia advises her to go to a TV station with her story. The story appears on Channel 3 on Wednesday night, and Thursday a reporter and cameraman from a second station appear at the McCulloughs’ house. Mrs. McCullough slams the door, but the story begins to dominate the news. Upset, Mrs. McCullough recalls how hard she and her husband have tried to have a baby—she suffered seven miscarriages.
Ed Lim, a local lawyer, offers to represent Bebe in a custody fight for her daughter. Mr. Richardson agrees to help the McCulloughs’ lawyers, leading to an argument at the Richardsons’ dinner table. Izzy sides with Bebe, and Mrs. Richardson angrily tells her to go to her room. The next Sunday, while reading about the story in the newspaper, Mrs. Richardson realizes it was Mia who informed Bebe about the baby’s whereabouts. She resolves to investigate Mia’s past.
Mrs. Richardson learns that Pauline Hawthorne taught photography in New York and had a student named Mia Wright. When Lexie is accepted at Yale, Mrs. Richardson suggests a celebratory brunch and invites Pearl, hoping to get more information from her. Pearl tells her she was born in San Francisco but does not know where Mia comes from. Mrs. Richardson gets a copy of Pearl’s birth certificate from San Francisco. No father’s name is given, but the birthplace of the mother—Mia Warren—is listed as Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. When Mrs. Richardson contacts the city records department there, she learns there is no Mia Warren but there is a Mia Wright as well as a Warren Wright. After more research, Mrs. Richardson learns that Warren Wright was a young athlete killed in 1982 in a car accident. She concludes that Mia Warren is actually Mia Wright and finds an address for George and Regina Wright.
Meanwhile, the custody case for May Lin/Mirabelle is controversial. Some people think the baby belongs with the McCulloughs because they have given her a loving home. Others think she belongs with Bebe because she should grow up in her birth culture. The court grants Bebe visitation rights until the case is settled. Mrs. Richardson becomes angry at Mia for stirring up such trouble and decides to visit Mia’s parents.
One afternoon, Pearl goes to the Richardsons’ house after school, but only Trip is there. She helps him with a math problem, and he kisses her. Pearl leads him up to his room, where they have sex. They begin a secret affair, often having sex at the house of Trip’s friend, Tim Michaels. During this time, Pearl lies to Moody about why she can’t meet him. Lexie and Brian, too, have been sneaking away to have sex. In the first week of March, Lexie discovers she is pregnant. When she broaches the possibility of having a baby with Brian, he is adamantly opposed. She then decides to have an abortion and asks Pearl to come with her.
At the clinic, Lexie gives her name as Pearl Warren because her mother knows the clinic’s director. Pearl feels upset but goes along with the lie. At the same time, Mrs. Richardson meets with the Wrights in Pennsylvania. She lies that she is writing a story about young athletes who died, as their son did. She steers the conversation to their daughter Mia and learns that they parted with Mia on bad terms after Warren died because she was pregnant as a surrogate mother.
In the fall of 1980, eighteen-year-old Mia Wright goes to New York to attend the School of Fine Arts on a tuition scholarship. She is extremely close to her younger brother, Warren, who approves of her decision, unlike her parents. Mia’s parents don’t understand her art and refuse to help her financially. In New York, Mia works three part-time jobs while taking classes, including a photography class taught by Pauline Hawthorne, whom she adores. Pauline recognizes Mia’s talent and invites Mia to her apartment to discuss her photographs. There Mia meets Mal, a poet and Pauline’s friend. By winter, Mia is visiting Pauline and Mal every week with her latest photographs.
One day in March, a well-dressed man on the subway keeps staring at Mia. She tries to lose him by getting off the train, but he follows her and eventually catches up to her. His name is Joseph Ryan, and he explains that he and his wife have been looking for a woman to carry a baby for them because they cannot have children. Mia meets Joseph and his wife Madeline at a restaurant, where they offer her $10,000 to carry a child, but Mia thinks the offer is bizarre. A few weeks later, she learns that her scholarship will not be renewed.
Needing money for school, Mia accepts the Ryans’ offer to carry a baby for them. In their home, she inseminates herself with Joseph’s sperm, and by September, Mia is pregnant. The Ryans move her to a small apartment and provide maternity clothes. Mia only tells Warren of her plan, and he disagrees with her decision, saying it will be hard to give up the baby. Mia and Warren stop speaking. Then one day, Mia’s mother calls her to say that Warren has died in a car accident. Mia returns home for the funeral, where her parents are horrified to see that she is pregnant and plans to “sell” her child.
Mia takes Warren’s car and drives back to New York. She writes a letter to the Ryans telling them she lost the baby and then leaves, driving cross-country to San Francisco, where Pearl is born. On the birth certificate, Mia records her name as “Mia Warren.” Three weeks later, Mal notifies Mia that Pauline is dying. Mia flies back to New York, where Pauline takes photos of her holding Pearl. When Pauline dies, Mal sends Mia the photos and notes that Anita will sell one whenever Mia needs money. Later, Anita sells one of Mia’s photos. Mia leaves San Francisco and goes on the road with Pearl.
Mrs. Richardson finishes her interview with the Wrights, Mia’s parents. They give her the name of a lawyer who called them fifteen years earlier, trying to locate Mia after she first disappeared. Mrs. Richardson contacts the lawyer’s office and learns he was hired by the Ryans. With the help of a journalist friend, she locates medical bills for Mia Wright paid by the Ryans, ending in February 1982.
Meanwhile, in Shaker Heights, Lexie recovers from her abortion. Pearl brings her home, where Mia infers what has happened and comforts and cares for Lexie. When Izzy comes over after school to help Mia, as usual, she’s surprised to see Lexie there. Mia asks her to come back tomorrow. Lexie asks Mia if she made a mistake getting an abortion, and Mia tells her she is the only one who can know that. Mia talks with Pearl that night, trying to find out if she and Moody are having sex, given how close they seem to be as friends. Pearl says no. The next day, Bebe calls Mia when Lexie is still at the house. Mia and Lexie discuss whether Bebe is fit to be a mother and should be given a second chance to care for her baby.
The custody hearing for May Lin/Mirabelle is held amid a media frenzy. Some news stories present Bebe as a hardworking immigrant who temporarily faced great obstacles; others portray her as an unfit mother. The actual hearing remains private, with Mr. Richardson presenting the case for the McCulloughs and Mr. Lim for Bebe Chow. For every negative point Mr. Richardson makes about Bebe and the baby’s condition when found, Mr. Lim counters with a defensive explanation. Basically, the argument boils down to whether a biological mother has more right to her baby than another, no matter how loving that other may be.
On the last day of the hearing, Mrs. McCullough takes the stand. Mr. Lim questions her about raising the baby to know her Chinese birth culture. Mrs. McCullough says they are going to learn about Chinese culture but admits that she does not speak a Chinese dialect, that Mirabelle has no Chinese dolls, and that they read a stereotypical Chinese folktale to the baby. That night at dinner, Lexie feels sympathetic to Bebe’s case, and even Mr. Richardson seems to have doubts.
Lexie asks Mia to accompany her on her follow-up exam after the abortion. Pearl feels as if she and Lexie have somehow switched places. One afternoon when Mia has to work, Pearl lies and tells Moody she has to go home to help her mother but brings Trip to her home instead. At school, Trip’s friend Tim Michaels asks Moody who Trip has been bringing over to his house. When Moody goes home, Izzy tells him that Mia wasn’t at her home that day. Suspicious, Moody rides his bike to Pearl’s and notices Trip’s car. He sees Pearl and Trip come outside, and they see him. Back at the Richardsons’, Moody and Pearl argue about her relationship with Trip.
Meanwhile, Lexie feels uncomfortable about being intimate with Brian again. One afternoon, they argue and break up. Lexie walks to Mia’s home and tells Mia and Izzy, who is actually sympathetic. In the custody case, the judge hasn’t made a decision. Mrs. Richardson asks Mrs. McCullough if she can think of anything that might help the judge decide in her favor. Mrs. McCullough says she suspects Bebe had a previous abortion. Mrs. Richardson asks her friend Elizabeth Manwill, the abortion clinic director, to check the clinic’s records.
Mrs. Richardson goes to Elizabeth Manwill’s office. Elizabeth is about to show Elena the clinic’s records but changes her mind when Elena acts superior. However, when Elizabeth leaves her office for a few minutes, Mrs. Richardson looks at the records, and while she doesn’t see the name Bebe Chow, she does see the name Pearl Warren. She believes that Pearl got pregnant by Moody.
Later, Mrs. Richardson learns that the judge ruled completely in the McCulloughs’ favor. After the verdict, Bebe goes to Mia’s and cries. Izzy shows up and becomes concerned, but Mia tells her that people find a way to start over, just as new things grow on scorched earth. In an attempt to comfort her, Mia tells Bebe that she will always be her daughter’s mother. When Mrs. Richardson returns home after work, she accuses Moody of making Pearl pregnant, but she can tell by Moody’s shock that he hadn’t known. Mrs. Richardson tells him that Pearl had an abortion. He replies that Trip was having sex with Pearl, not him. Izzy overhears everything from her room. The next morning, Mrs. Richardson goes to Mia’s, confronts her about the Ryans, and tells Mia she must move out.
Mia has Pearl called out of class and tells her they are going away. Back at home, Pearl cries, throws a tantrum, and insists she won’t go unless Mia tells her why. Mia tells Pearl about Warren, the Ryans, and the circumstances of her birth. She explains that Mrs. Richardson found out. As they are packing, Izzy appears at the door. Because Izzy seems so lonely and anxious, Mia reminds her of what she said about scorching everything to the ground and starting over. After finishing packing, Mia leaves photographs for the Richardsons, and she and Pearl depart for good.
Meanwhile, Moody and Trip have had a fight over Pearl. Izzy goes home to an empty house, but Moody finally returns. They argue about Moody telling their mother about Trip and Pearl. Izzy tells Moody that Pearl didn’t have an abortion because Izzy has inferred that it was actually Lexie. When Moody criticizes Pearl, Izzy smashes a can of soda in his face. Izzy confronts Lexie about the abortion and then goes to Mia and Pearl’s to find that they have gone. The next morning, Izzy, believing no one else is at home, pours gasoline on her siblings’ beds, drops a match on Lexie’s bed, and runs away to find Mia and Pearl.
After the house fire is put out, Mrs. Richardson sees her husband talking with the fire chief and police about Izzy’s disappearance. She feels furious with Izzy and also ashamed. Needing a place to stay, the family moves into the rental property where Mia and Pearl had lived. They find the photographs Mia left. Each photo reflects one of the family members—a revealing, artistic representation of that person. The photo for Izzy is missing as Izzy had taken it the night before.
Later, the Richardsons hear that Bebe stole into the McCulloughs’ home, took her baby, and boarded a flight to China. As Mia and Pearl drive away from Shaker Heights, Pearl wishes she could say goodbye to Lexie, Trip, and Moody and that they could take Izzy with them. Mia fantasizes that someday they will see Izzy by the side of road and pick her up. The next day, Izzy takes a bus to Pittsburgh to see the Wrights, whose address she found in Mrs. Richardson’s files, hoping they can lead her to Mia. If not, she plans to see Anita in New York. Meanwhile, Mrs. Richardson vows to search for Izzy for as long as it takes and make amends.