The narrative flashes back in time to the previous June. Mia Warren and her fifteen-year-old daughter Pearl have just moved into the Richardsons’ “little” rental property on Winslow Road. Mrs. Richardson and Mr. Richardson were aware when the two of them moved in that Mia was an unmarried single mother, but nevertheless she had paid her first month’s rent, last month’s rent, and security deposit up front and in cash.
The Richardsons expect for the Warrens to be disruptors right off the bat. Mia’s identity as an artist and as a single mother seems to signal to the Richardsons that she will shirk order and create problems for them, but she proves that she is able to play by their rules. It’s immediately shown that the Richardsons are wealthy and comfortable.
Winslow Road is lined with duplexes, designed to appear to be single-family homes to “allow residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex.” The fact that each house is a duplex is common knowledge, but is only discernable from inside each structure.
There is something sinister about the “altruism” of “allow[ing]” residents to maintain the appearance of wealth and luxury. The world of Shaker Heights often puts appearance ahead of reality.
Shaker Heights is governed by many unspoken ways and rules, often both strict and obscure. As Mia and Pearl settle in, they begin to learn the rules. They must write the word Up following their new address, so that their mail is delivered to them and not to the downstairs tenant, Mr. Yang. Each property has a “tree lawn,” a strip of grass which separates the sidewalk from the street. All throughout the city, garbage cans must be left in the rear of the house, never dragged out to the curb. Garages, too, are placed at the backs of properties in order to maintain a pleasant, streamlined appearance, and lawns must never be allowed to grow more than six inches tall, which the Warrens learn when Mr. Yang takes a trip to Hong Kong and leaves the lawn unmowed resulting in a “polite but stern letter from the city.”
The many rules that permeate every aspect of life in Shaker Heights are presented through the text in a rapid and matter-of-fact manner—the audience is meant to be just as overwhelmed by the abundance of strict regulations and unseen mechanisms that keep the city in order as the Warrens are.
Each house in Shaker Heights is built in either Tudor, English, or French style, and each style can only be painted one of a few certain colors. Shaker is one of the nation’s first planned communities, laid out in 1912, and the “underlying philosophy” of Shaker is that “everything [can] and should be planned out” in order to avoid “the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.”
The idea that the opposite of careful order is “disaster” keeps everything in Shaker Heights running along a careful, predetermined path. Shaker Heights sees order as an identity, and it manipulates its residents—even those who live on its outskirts—into following a set of arbitrary rules that are framed as having been established for benevolent purposes. Mia and Pearl confront their new world as a team, doing what they must to ensure they fit into the orderly place they’ve chosen as home.
Along with the more stringent, off-putting rules, Mia and Pearl begin to learn the “more welcoming things” about their new neighborhood. They start to memorize local street names and become familiar with the local grocery store, where customers are treated “like aristocracy,” and bagboys deliver customers’ groceries to their cars free of charge and without accepting even a tip. On weekends, Mia and Pearl visit nearby neighborhoods with less stringent ordinances—neighborhoods where trash can be left at the curb—in order to collect free furniture to fill their new home.
For Pearl and for Mia, the sudden presence of stringent rules and an allegiance to order is disorienting. Nevertheless, they interrupt their own version of “order” to make room for the good and the bad parts of their new lives in Shaker Heights. Mia and Pearl show themselves to be deft manipulators of the world around them, able to look for loopholes in their circumstances and assimilate into almost any situation.
Moody Richardson overhears his parents discussing whether or not Mia will pay the rent on time with some concern — she is, they know, a struggling artist—though they both concede that the rent is not important to the Richardson family’s well-being. Mrs. Richardson’s parents purchased the duplex as an investment property when she was young, and used the rent money it generated to help send her to college, then to help her get on her feet as a young professional, and finally to help her and Mr. Richardson to put a down payment on their own home.
The Richardsons’ lives and privilege are introduced in this passage. Mrs. Richardson’s parents, lucky enough to be in a position to purchase an extra property, used it as an altruistic endeavor to help their daughter through life.
Mrs. Richardson inherited her parents’ rental house after their deaths five years ago, and in addition to being a “sentimental memory,” most of the income generated from it is funneled into the Richardsons’ yearly vacation fund. Because the Richardsons do not need the money the house generates, Mrs. Richardson has the luxury of using it as a tool to “do good,” by picking the “kind of tenant” who is “deserving but who ha[s], for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life.” Mr. Yang, who occupies the downstairs apartment, is one such tenant. An immigrant from Hong Kong and a bus driver for “a nearby private girls’ school” as well as a part-time handyman, Mr. Yang is “exactly the kind of tenant Mrs. Richardson want[s]: a kind person to whom she could do a kind turn, and who would appreciate her kindness.”
Mrs. Richardson, now in a secure financial position—due to the boost she’s been given as a result of her parents’ prosperity and her inheritance of that prosperity—is able to take the house’s “altruistic” purpose one step further. Though Mrs. Richardson’s altruism is just thinly-veiled manipulation—she gets to decide who she feels is worthy of a place in the house—it allows her to maintain the order, regulation, and sense of hierarchy that has defined her life since childhood. Mrs. Richardson’s faith in kindness only extends to those who she feels will “appreciate” her kindness, and thus be indebted to her—an even larger manipulation into which she’s now dragged Pearl and Mia.
Mrs. Richardson has had less success with renting the upstairs apartment to the “kind” of tenant she wants—though her tenants have all been deserving, none of them have “stayed long.” Mrs. Richardson vowed to be “more careful” in choosing a tenant this time around, and settled on Mia and Pearl in part because she wanted Pearl, a bright girl in all AP and honors classes, to have a place in the pristine Shaker Heights school system—though Mia, as a renter, will “get all the benefits with none of the burden.”
Mrs. Richardson does not see her tenants as people with full identities, but rather as benefactors of her charity who should be eternally grateful. She makes a snide comment about Mia and Pearl’s ability to “benefit” from the rules already in place in Shaker Heights as a way to manipulate them into seeing the “differences” between their families, and the hierarchy they are now a part of.
Moody is intrigued by his mother’s mention of a young girl living in the rental house, and, a few days after Mia and Pearl move in, he rides his bike over to the property to introduce himself. He is the first of the Richardson children to “venture” to the house on Winslow. When Moody arrives, he watches as Pearl unpacks a bed frame from her mother’s car and arranges the pieces on the front lawn. Moody notes that Pearl’s hair is in a “thick braid straining to burst free.” Mia leans out of the second-story window and photographs Pearl lying playfully in the grass in the middle of the bed frame, and Moody watches the intimate moment unfold between them. When Mia goes back inside, Pearl calls across the street to Moody, asking if he wants to help them “or just stand there.” Moody doesn’t remember crossing the street or introducing himself to Pearl, and feels that “he ha[s] always known her name and she ha[s] always known his.”
Moody, though he does not know Pearl or Mia, right away observes a very intimate moment between the two of them, and is instantly fascinated by their closeness and by the oddity of their lives. The sensation that he has “always” known Pearl both stems from and foreshadows the ways in which their very different pasts will complement one another’s present. Moody will teach Pearl things, Pearl will teach Moody things, and a friendship built on breaking down the barriers between their identities will soon form, transforming both of their lives.
Moody helps Pearl bring the bed frame inside and watches as she assembles it. Mia brings them a set of tools, and Pearl knows exactly what to do with each of them. In the Richardson house, if something breaks, his parents call a handyman or simply replace the broken thing. “Every three or four years,” Moody notes, his parents purchase a whole new living room set, move the old set into the basement, and donate the “old-old set” to a local shelter. Moody has only ever handled tools in shop class, where he made the same project as his brother before him and his sister before his brother. Moody asks where Pearl got the bed frame, and Pearl tells him that she and her mother “found it.” Moody is surprised when Pearl confesses that she has never had a house of her own before, let alone a room. Moody cannot “believe that people could be so poor.”
Moody’s privileged and luxurious life is contrasted with Pearl’s, to almost comic effect. The Richardsons’ ability to simply discard the things they don’t want, and the Warrens’ need to subsist off of the discarded things of others, feed into one another in a cycle of consumption. Moody has never encountered poverty, especially in the sheltered, ordered world of Shaker Heights, and feels almost embarrassed by his own privilege and his family’s ways—which he is starting to realize are wasteful and a little bit helpless.
As Pearl recounts her and her mother’s itinerant lives and all the places they’ve lived, Moody can’t “see all that she [is] remembering.” Pearl and Mia have lived in dilapidated apartments in Urbana, Middlebury, Ocala, and Muncie, and had subletted a place in Ann Arbor where Pearl had played dress-up in the clothes of the “lucky girl” who normally occupied the home. Pearl now prefers totally empty apartments “to [ones] filled with someone else’s things.” Pearl tells Moody that she and her mother move whenever Mia “gets the bug.” Pearl says that this time, though, she and Mia are staying put.
Moody has never known struggle, and is unable to really “see” or understand what life has been like for Pearl up to this point. Pearl’s transient existence has taken a toll on her—she is thrilled by the order, regulation, and permanence that Shaker Heights offers. Moody is so bored of his own privilege, and with the same things about Shaker Heights that excite Pearl, that he is unable to understand her excitement.
Moody has the sudden realization that he is infatuated with Pearl, and that his life has been “divided into a before and an after.” He eagerly asks her what her plans are for the next day.
Moody’s infatuation with Pearl grows out of the differences between them and Pearl’s disruption of the routine that has, until now, been Moody’s life.