Mrs. Richardson remains annoyed with Izzy for the rest of the week—though she admits “she [is] usually annoyed with Izzy.” Mrs. Richardson reflects on the reasons for her difficult relationship with her youngest daughter. Mrs. Richardson told Mr. Richardson when they married that she wanted to have a large family, and he agreed. After having Lexie, Trip, and Moody, Mrs. Richardson pushed for one more, and Mr. Richardson again agreed. After a difficult pregnancy marked by illness and bed rest, Mrs. Richardson gave birth to Izzy eleven weeks early. Izzy spent months in the hospital and grew into a healthy baby, despite her mother’s constant fear of the many complications that plague premature babies. Mrs. Richardson continued to scan Izzy for troubles even after she returned home, and kept up with her worry all throughout Izzy’s childhood, placing a “microscopic focus” on everything Izzy did. Mr. Richardson, throughout the years, has urged his wife to “let [Izzy] be,” but Mrs. Richardson cannot.
Mrs. Richardson has feared for Izzy’s well-being every moment since her birth, and has thus attempted to control and manipulate her out of fear for her well-being, creating friction between the two of them. One of the novel’s most profound examples of misplaced altruism which actually results in harmful manipulation, Mrs. Richardson’s attempts to control Izzy have made Izzy into the willful disruptor she is today. The relationship between the two of them is now marked by mutual distrust, and Mrs. Richardson’s reflection on her difficult history with Izzy is perhaps brought on by the arrival of a healthier, more mutually respectful mother-daughter relationship in all their lives: the one between Pearl and Mia.
The week after Thanksgiving, the Richardsons are invited to attend a birthday party thrown by their friends, the McCulloughs. Moody and Izzy want to invite Pearl, but Mrs. Richardson refuses, telling them that “Pearl is not part of the family.” The Richardsons take two cars to the party, which is “full to overflowing” and luxuriously decorated and catered.
Mrs. Richardson attempts to reestablish order and redraw her family’s boundary lines, with Pearl firmly on the outside. Her struggle to define family boundaries mirrors the McCulloughs’ impending struggle to similarly create a definition of what constitutes a family and a familial identity.
Mirabelle McCullough, the birthday girl, is in Mrs. McCullough’s arms—she and her husband are in the process of adopting the baby. Mirabelle first arrived at the McCullough household almost a year ago. The McCulloughs, who had been on the waitlist to adopt a baby, received a call saying that an Asian baby had been left at a fire station. By that afternoon the baby—originally named May Ling—was theirs. While Lexie and her mother gush over the baby, Izzy needles Mrs. McCullough for having assigned May Ling a “random” birthday and changing her birth name. Mrs. McCullough tells Izzy that she wanted to give Mirabelle a new name to “celebrate the start of her new life,” and Mrs. Richardson chastises Izzy for misbehaving.
The McCulloughs are both altruists and manipulators. They have hungered for a child for years, and the arrival of May Ling seemed like fate—she fell, almost literally, into their laps. However, they have already begun to erase May Ling’s history and identity by reassigning her a new name and a new “birthday.” Though their actions are, at heart, benevolent, Izzy is the first to see them as thoughtlessly and irresponsibly forcing a kind of assimilation onto May Ling.
Moody and Trip remark on Lexie’s obsession with the baby. Moody teases Trip about the “dozens of girls” who are going to have “baby Trips,” while Trip teases Moody about the fact that “in order to knock someone up, someone has to actually sleep with you.” Lexie gets a tour of May Ling’s nursery, and begs to hold her again and again throughout the party. Moody tells Lexie that May Ling is “a baby, not a toy.” After the party, Lexie’s “baby fever” only grows stronger. Trip jokes to Brian, Lexie’s boyfriend, that he had better be careful.
Lexie’s tactile and emotional obsession with May Ling highlights May Ling’s lack of agency, her constantly manipulated identity, and her status as a “toy” or object for many characters in the novel. Though the McCulloughs are kind and loving, this introduction foreshadows their inability to fully understand or care for their daughter, who may be the victim of misguided altruism.
On Monday, when Mia arrives to prepare dinner, Lexie continues to gush about May Ling. She tells Mia the “mirac[ulous]” story of how the McCulloughs came to adopt May Ling after she was left at a fire station. Though Mia’s job at the Richardsons’ pays her rent, she has kept a few of her shifts at Lucky Palace to earn some more money on the side—and Mia recalls a conversation with a coworker, Bebe Chow, in which Bebe confessed to having left her child at a fire station about a year ago. Bebe had divulged to Mia the difficulties she faced as a young, single immigrant mother dealing with what was, more than likely, undiagnosed postpartum depression.
By reducing May Ling—or Mirabelle—to being a “miracle,” rather than a person with heritage, identity, and agency, Lexie joins the McCulloughs in imposing an “order” onto May Ling and attempting to manipulate her personhood. Mia’s realization that Bebe is May Ling’s mother reignites her altruistic tendencies and her desire to repair a mother-daughter relationship, as her own relationship to Pearl is changing.
Mia knows that Bebe is now “desperate” to find her child, and Mia feels that Bebe is stable now. Though she has developed “one rule” of transient life, which is to never get attached or involved, Mia decides, after careful reflection upon her own close relationship with Pearl, to help Bebe. She has a “sense of what she [is] starting,” feeling the sensation of wafting “smoke from a far-off blaze,” but decides that it is “unbearable” to imagine Bebe without her child. Upon returning home from the Richardsons’ that evening, Mia picks up the phone and calls Bebe.
The audience doesn’t yet know the full story of Mia’s past—and her true reason for being so motivated to help Bebe reconnect with her daughter, despite the fact that another family has already taken steps to claim her as their own. Mia cements her status as a disruptor in Shaker Heights by taking the leap to help Bebe, even though she can tell that she is putting a “blaze” (another example of fire as an image of chaos and disruption) in motion.