By Celeste Ng, published 2017. *contains spoilers*
“Would you have been ready to be a good mother?”
This is the central question of this novel, but it comes in the final 100 pages of the book. Prior to that, Celeste Ng welcomes us into Shaker Heights, a perfect community where residents don’t “see” race and there are no surprises because everything is planned. When Mia and her daughter Pearl arrive in town, various members of the Richardson family are enamored, intrigued, or irritated with their freewheeling style of living. But it is with three pregnancies in the novel that Ng explores three possible outcomes: keeping the baby and just getting by; giving the baby up; and an abortion.
At the same time, we see that these outcomes are often shaped by class. Both an abortion and relatively uncomplicated motherhood are often available to those with money. The girl from a privileged family has access to abortion, another agrees to be a surrogate to fund her education, and the really poor immigrant is demeaned as unfit because she is poor.
I was fascinated by Mia, who was a surrogate and inexplicably decided to keep the baby, who she named Pearl and lived with on the run for more than decade. She tells Pearl that she was wanted, but in Mia’s backstory we learn very little about her motivations. Apart from her family’s disapproval and her emotional state following the death of her brother, we don’t know what has compelled her to call off her surrogacy and keep the baby for herself.
Meanwhile, a Chinese immigrant, Bebe, left her baby at a fire station when she was unable to safely care for it. She regrets this decision, and later discovers the baby is soon to be adopted by a wealthy white couple. Desperate to regain custody, Bebe takes the couple to court. I was frustrated that Bebe’s lawyer framed her maternal abilities strictly around her race, asking: how could a white couple raise a Chinese baby? This argument seems to accept that Bebe’s poverty would otherwise preclude her from regaining custody of her baby. It seemed simple to me: Bebe was the baby’s biological mother and had not legally transferred custody to anyone else. In the courtroom, motherhood came down to dollars. This is sadly the case for countless mothers, and the legal battle over Bebe’s baby serves as an analogy for maternal choice and support.
While this story was engrossing, and the characters fascinating, it fell short of Everything I Never Told You. Perhaps something was lost in exploring the many outcomes of motherhood rather than maintaining the focus that is present in Everything. Three stars.