An arson in utopia | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 12, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 12, 2017


An arson in utopia

“Most communities just happen; the best are planned” - is the motto of a perfectionist community, Shaker Heights.

Someone burns the Richardson house to ashes, and the arsonist cannot be found. This incident is a striking one in a careful and safe suburb like Shaker Heights. For all plausible reasons, no one expected such an incident to unravel. The author, Celeste Ng, draws the readers to the story by the mysterious arson, as to who caused it, and why?

In this pragmatic and planned community, everyone is financially stable, smart, and successful; Elena Richardson in this regard is the perfect embodiment. In this growing suburb in Cleveland, everything is pre-planned and in harmony. Take the colour of the houses and the pattern of the roads for instance. Mia Warren is a mysterious nomad artist who moves in the neighbourhood with her daughter, Pearl, as the Richardsons' tenants. With time, the four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter duo.

As Elena's best friend attempts to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle explodes, and it dramatically worsens the relation between Elena and Mia. Having journalism as a profession, she decides to dig Mia's mysterious past, by which she feels threatened. Her obsession to uncover Mia's secrets leads to many disasters that stir the community. It includes the introductory arson mystery scene as well, and the story stems from the scene with many other branches.

Half the novel sheds light on the relationship building between the Richardsons and their tenants while the other half touches the legal issues arising from a custody battle, Mia's haunting past, and consequential teenager mistakes. What I found amazing about the story development was how the author introduced the aspects of motherhood, family, class, race, adolescence, and identity through the subplots and finally knitted them tightly. I think any reader will be able to connect the dots together from the many-branched progression. 

The characterisation also caught my eye - how the author brought every side character into life, equally putting emphasis on their backgrounds, and this is where the hammer of the novel strikes. Though the arsonist's identity was pretty much predictable to everyone from the beginning, the reason behind the arson is what mainly glues the readers to delve deeper.

Packed with the emotional ordeals of parents, ignorant sides of a utopia, and heavy priced mistakes of adolescents, this novel will not bore you.

Shah Tazrian Ashrafi can't pronounce 'choir' without sounding awkward. Send help at

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