The narrative jumps backward in time to the fall of 1980. Mia, newly eighteen, has just left Bethel Park for New York City, where she will enroll as a freshman at the New York School of Fine Arts. Mia has never been outside of Pennsylvania before, and did not tell her parents that she’d applied to art school until she was accepted. She has had keen observational skills and a sensitivity to things around her since childhood, and so her parents are not thrilled but also not surprised that she has chosen to pursue photography.
Mia has been an artist since childhood—it is an identity she has honed, practiced, and embraced since she can remember. In coming to New York for art school, Mia is about to fully nurture and realize that identity for the first time in her life, despite the friction it creates between herself and her parents, who believe staunchly in their own kind of order.
Mia had always believed in the power of transformation, and her brother, Warren, only a year younger than her, was the only one who understood the way she saw the world. Just shy of her twelfth birthday, Mia discovered photography, just as Warren discovered sports. She purchased a camera from a junk shop in town, and began to take “odd” photos of dilapidated houses and animal corpses. Her parents considered the prints she ordered from the pharmacy a “waste of money,” as well as time, though Mia was beginning to understand how photographs worked. One of the Wright family’s elderly neighbors, having noticed Mia taking pictures around the neighborhood, told her she had a “good eye” and lent her a Nikon camera. As the years went by, Mia continued to work hard at photography, save money, and eventually bought an even better camera, though her parents were reluctant to support her and her neighbor moved away abruptly after his wife’s death.
This insight into the truth of Mia’s past, and the origins of her family life, reveals the reasoning and motivation behind much of Mia’s character in the present narrative. Her parents believed in the role of order, just like the Richardsons, and were reluctant to accept Mia’s disruption of that order or her burgeoning identity as an artist. Only her younger brother and her neighbor behaved empathetically or altruistically toward her, teaching Mia that she didn’t need to lean so heavily on the order that a traditional family—or traditional values—represented.
Throughout high school, Mia continued to experiment with doctoring photographs, though her parents never fully understood what it was she was doing, and found no use for art. Mia’s parents disapprove of her decision to attend art school and refuse to pay her tuition, having hoped she’d go somewhere “practical,” but Mia is able to accept the admission offer with the help of a tuition scholarship. Warren had offered her his savings—which he’d planned on using to buy himself a Volkswagen Rabbit—but she’d refused.
Mia’s decision to attend art school is the first definitive moment in her life in which she consciously shirks the status quo to pursue own identity. Though close with her brother and the object of his admiration, Mia never would have attempted to manipulate him or take from him in order to make it to art school.
Mia takes a job at a diner in order to pay for her room and board, working a shift early each morning before class. In the afternoons, once classes are over, she heads to another part-time job at an art supply store, where the owners allow her to take home supplies that arrive damaged or otherwise unsellable. A few nights a week, she works as a bartender uptown. Though stretched thin, Mia enjoys her life in the city, and feels all her hard work is worth it to be able to pursue her passion.
As Mia settles into life in New York, she experiences a small revelation when she realizes that there is more to “being an artist” than just making art, and that she is going to have to sacrifice her time in order to realize her dream. Nonetheless, she’s excited to develop her identity as an artist even further, pushed ahead by her characteristic fiery passion.
In the esteemed photographer Pauline Hawthorne’s class, Mia finds herself enthralled with Pauline, and is surprised and delighted to discover that Pauline soon takes a special interest in her work. Mia does not have the technical vocabulary to talk about her own photographs, but as the class goes on, she develops one. After several weeks, Pauline invites Mia to her home, offering to take a closer look at some of Mia’s photographs. At Pauline’s luxurious apartment, Mia meets Pauline’s partner, Mal, and feels profoundly at home. Over the next several months, Pauline and Mal invite Mia over weekly and the three become very close. Pauline and Mal know that Mia is poor and working three jobs, and extend kindness and hospitality to her, but Mia is proud, and insists on bringing them small gifts each visit.
Mia, never having been able to find artistic or emotional support at home, is thrilled and nervous in equal measure to find that support in Pauline, who quickly becomes her mentor and close friend. Pauline helps Mia to feel even more secure in her identity as an artist, and acts as a mother figure toward her, showing Mia what life as an artist can be like. This is especially important because Mia’s biological mother seems to show little support for her interest in art.
One day, Mia notices a man staring at her on the subway. Put off by his look of “recognition and hunger,” she attempts to ditch him, but he pursues her, and eventually catches up with her. He begs to talk to her and apologizes for frightening her. His name is Joseph Ryan, he is a trader on Wall Street, and he and his wife have been searching for a surrogate to carry a child for them. Joseph tells Mia that he and his wife are prepared to pay generously for a surrogate, and that he would like for it to be Mia. Mia is confused, but Joseph hands her his business card, and invites her to meet him and his wife for dinner at the Four Seasons. He tells Mia that her help would “change [their] lives.”
This bizarre chance encounter disrupts the fragile order that Mia’s life has settled into. Joseph Ryan’s unabashed hunger for a child mirrors that of the McCulloughs years later. Mia’s confusion and reluctance to accept Joseph’s invitation is palpable, but the earnestness with which Joseph tells her she could “change” his and his wife’s lives ultimately intrigues and moves her.
Mia meets the Ryans at the Four Seasons, not realizing that the evening will “change everything forever.” She is shocked to find that Madeline Ryan looks almost exactly like her. The Ryans explain their story: Madeline was born without a uterus, and the only way for them to have a child is via a surrogate. Joseph offers Mia ten thousand dollars to become pregnant and carry the baby, and, once the dinner is over, Mia struggles with what to do.
This disruption in Mia’s life dwarfs that of her decision to move to New York. She has unknowingly been placed on a course that will alter her world entirely, and is forced to suddenly confront some big questions about motherhood and her own identity.
Weeks later, Mia receives a letter saying that her scholarship will not be renewed for the coming school year due to budget cuts. Pauline and Mal are devastated, but Mia shrugs it off as no big deal, telling them she’ll “get another job.” However, as she quickly does the math in her head, she realizes only the job as the Ryans’ surrogate will allow her to afford to stay in school. Conflicted, Mia leaves Pauline and Mal’s apartment and steps out into the night.
The letter informing Mia of her scholarship’s termination, an even further disruption, certainly seems like it would immediately tip the scales of her decision, but she remains conflicted over large and difficult questions of whether or not she is prepared to abandon her identity as an artist and a student and take the drastic action of becoming a surrogate.