Looking back, Mia realizes that by not consulting her parents, her roommates, or Pauline and Mal, “she had already made up her mind” to help the Ryans. Mia asks her boss at the diner for a raise, but is shot down. She dodges Pauline and Mal, unable to think of photography, or of anything but her tuition and the Ryans. She follows Joseph Ryan to work and visits the apartment building where he and Madeline live, observing their lives. She begins to believe that they are kind, genuine people. Mia tells herself that “the math” is the bottom line: the Ryans’ offer is enough to pay for three more semesters of school, and her way forward becomes clear. She picks up the phone to call them.
Though Mia is deeply in need of money and aware of the Ryans’ plight, it isn’t until she observes them behaving as kind, relatable people when she follows them throughout their days that she herself decides to behave altruistically toward them. Though Mia is primarily motivated by pure financial need, this aspect of the decision somewhat mirrors Mrs. Richardson’s renting of the apartment on Winslow Road: to do a “kindness” to someone who will really “appreciate” it.
After a check-up at the obstetrician three weeks later, Mia is deemed healthy. She applies for a leave of absence from school. In the last few weeks of classes, Mia goes to the Ryans’ apartment and allows Madeline to inject Joseph’s sperm into her with a turkey baster. For the entire summer, Mia goes back and forth from her home to the Ryans’ apartment to undergo these treatments, based on a fertility map that the obstetrician gave her, but for months she is unable to get pregnant. Mia begins to get nervous, knowing that if she is unable to get pregnant, she will have no other way to pay her tuition. Finally, in September, Mia misses her period. Madeline takes her to a pharmacy, and together they perform a pregnancy test. It is positive.
Mia’s hesitancy to accept the Ryans’ offer and her initial wariness and disbelief that she’s going through with it even after they’ve begun attempting to impregnate her melts away in the face of the fear that she might not actually be able to become pregnant. The logic and order of Mia’s life has been disrupted, and it is no longer the thought that she could get pregnant but the thought that it might not be possible for her that is now the fearful one.
Slowly, the people in Mia’s life begin noticing what is going on. Her roommates tell her that she’s gotten a “sweet gig.” The Ryans move Mia into a small studio apartment closer to their own, and Mia quits her job at the art supply store, though she continues working at the bar and the diner. The Ryans give her gifts of maternity clothes and delight in each update from the obstetrician. Mia calls her parents to tell them that she won’t be going home for Christmas, and, at the end of January, Mia confides in Warren about her pregnancy and about the Ryans. Warren is disappointed, and tells Mia that he thinks she’ll have a hard time giving the baby up, though he agrees to keep her secret. After their phone conversation, Mia and Warren stop speaking, but soon Mia’s mother calls her with the news that her brother has been involved in a car accident.
Mia’s relationship with Warren has been the closest and most important in her life since she was just over a year old. The fact that her pregnancy—her identity as a surrogate and a mother—disrupts their relationship and forces a silence between them reflects the difficulty of transience and changing life situations in a sibling relationship. Mia and Warren know and love each other under one specific set of circumstances—but new ones put their friendship to the test, though it’s a test whose outcome is never determined due to Warren’s death.
Warren had been driving his friend’s car late at night when they suddenly skidded on an icy road, crashed, and overturned. Warren’s friend survived the incident, but Warren died in the crash. Mia immediately hops a flight home, taking the first plane trip of her life. At the sight of her enlarged belly, her parents fall silent. Mia tells her parents that it’s not what they think—that she is a surrogate—but this news upsets the Wrights even more. Mia reveals that the Ryans are paying her, and her parents berate her for “sell[ing her] own child.”
The Warren family’s lives are disrupted in several ways, very quickly. Warren’s death is the largest blow, but the revelation that Mia is pregnant completely disrupts and ultimately severs the relationship between her and her parents. They are unable to believe that she would use motherhood for profit, even though Mia insists she is helping the Ryans for reasons deeper than just money.
In the days leading up to the funeral, Mia’s parents refuse to speak to her. They make all of the arrangements without her, and when they tell her that she’s not permitted to attend the funeral, for fear of anyone “getting the wrong idea,” Mia packs a bag, steals the keys to Warren’s VW Rabbit, and drives back to New York City.
Mia is denied her identity as Warren’s sister as a result of her new identity as a mother. Mia, unable to reconcile or accept this fact, flees her family altogether, creating another even larger disruption and beginning the erasure of her heritage.
Once back in her studio, Mia takes a nap, packs her belongings, and writes a note to the Ryans. She lies to them about having lost the baby, and repays them nine hundred dollars for wasting their time. She leaves behind all the gifts they gave her, not wanting to take anything that does not belong to her, and drives off into the night. She keeps going, “as if in a fever,” until she reaches San Francisco, California, and can go no further.
Though Mia’s abandonment of the Ryans is no doubt cruel, she attempts to approach it as tenderly and altruistically as possible by leaving behind everything that is not hers, and leaving them a monetary repayment that will be meager in their eyes but is enormous in hers. Mia then sets out and begins her life of transience.
Once in San Francisco, Mia settles into an apartment and soon gives birth to Pearl. She names her daughter after the child in The Scarlet Letter—Pearl, like her namesake, has been “born into complicated circumstances. Mia signs her name on the birth certificate as Mia Warren. After leaving the hospital, Mia struggles with her new role, is regretful of having lied to the Ryans, and even considers calling them to confess—but with the help of her landlady, she is able to get some rest, pull herself together, and care for Pearl. Her landlady continues to bring her leftovers, keeping a distant but watchful eye on her and the baby to ensure that both are thriving.
Mia knows that Pearl is born into difficult circumstances, and in order to save both of them from the pressures and pains of that, she erases her heritage and adopts a new identity for herself and for her daughter. Mia’s initial difficulty in mothering Pearl mirrors Bebe’s difficulty mothering May Ling. Mia is able to find support and keep her baby, revealing the narrative’s belief that Bebe’s abandonment of May Ling was not out of any lack of love, but due to dire circumstances beyond the norm.
Pearl is only three weeks old when Mal calls Mia to tell her that Pauline has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and that Mia needs to come back to New York right away if she wants to see her one last time. Mia flies back to New York with Pearl in tow to see Pauline, who photographs her with her newborn daughter and tells her she expects “great things” from her just before Mia returns to San Francisco.
Mia has begun to settle into a routine and an order, but experiences a major disruption with Pauline’s declining health. Pauline’s photos of Mia, though Mia doesn’t know it, will become gifts that sustain her financially throughout the years and allow her and Pearl to survive.
A week and a half later, Pauline dies. A few weeks after her death a package arrives for Mia— there are ten signed prints inside, all of Mia and Pearl, along with a note from Pauline stating that her art dealer, Anita Rees, will sell the photos and allow Mia to keep the profits. Not only that, but Anita will take Mia on as a client whenever she is ready.
Pauline’s death hurts and shocks Mia, but the photos she leaves behind are a lasting symbol of her love for and belief in Mia. Symbolic of the love chosen families can bring, Pauline leaving the photos behind is a true act of altruism in a novel full of manipulation.
Mia begins taking photographs again “with a fervor that felt like relief,” and slowly sends her work to Anita. After many months of sending things back and forth, Anita sells one of Pauline’s photographs, buying Mia time, and then, eventually, one of Mia’s original photos. With that, Mia packs up her apartment in San Francisco to seek inspiration elsewhere, with Pearl by her side, cooing “as if she were sure that they [are] headed for great and important things.”
Mia settles further into the new order of her life in the wake of Pauline’s death, beginning a pattern of transience, renewal, and pursuit of her identity as an artist made possible through Pauline’s generous gift. The bond between Mia and her daughter, who she has gone through so much to keep, is already strong.