The Richardson house has burned down and Izzy Richardson, the youngest of the four Richardson children, is the primary suspect. The firemen who assessed the damage have determined that there were “little fires everywhere” throughout the house, indicating “multiple points of origin.” Mrs. Richardson and her three older children, Lexie, Trip, and Moody, stand on the lawn surveying the damage and wondering where Izzy has gone.
The narrative then flashes back to the previous June, when Mia and Pearl Warren arrived in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to live on the top floor of the Richardsons’ rental property on Winslow Road—in one of the manicured, utopic planned community’s “less desirable” fringe neighborhoods. Pearl and Mia have lived a transient lifestyle, moving from town to town. This time, Mia has promised Pearl, the two of them will “stay put.”
Moody is the first of the Richardson children to befriend Pearl Warren. As their friendship deepens, Moody brings Pearl to his house, hopeful that she will be as fascinated by his family as he is by her and her mother’s bohemian “magic trick” of a life. Pearl is “dazzled” by the Richardsons; Mrs. Richardson is a journalist, Mr. Richardson is a lawyer, and the children are all “artlessly beautiful.” Mia begins to notice Pearl’s growing infatuation with the Richardsons but tells herself that she owes Pearl a semblance of a normal life, and allows her to continue visiting their home daily, where Pearl watches Jerry Springer, takes trips to the mall or thrift stores with Lexie, flirts with the charming Trip, and receives an expensive notebook from Moody, who has developed feelings for Pearl.
Pearl is invited to tag along to a house party at the home of Stacie Perry, a popular girl known for her wild gatherings. Pearl, Lexie, and Serena Wong enjoy the beginning of the party together. Lexie’s boyfriend Brian arrives and the two sneak away to have sex. Pearl, slightly drunk and alone, searches for Lexie, Serena, and Trip, but is unable to find any of them. Pearl then calls Moody, who drives his mother’s car to come retrieve her. Pearl misses her curfew, upsetting Mia. The following Tuesday, Mrs. Richardson stops by Mia and Pearl’s apartment to check in. Realizing that Mia has had to take several odd jobs to make ends meet, Mrs. Richardson offers to hire Mia as a housekeeper. Mia, happy for an inroad into her daughter’s new life, accepts Mrs. Richardson’s offer. Pearl fears that her mother’s presence will ruin her relationship with the Richardsons—especially her flirtations with the handsome Trip.
One morning, Mia is home alone with Izzy, who has been suspended from school for breaking her racist, alcoholic orchestra teacher Mrs. Peters’s violin bow and throwing the pieces in her face. Izzy, days later, is still upset about the incident; Mia asks her “what [she is] going to do about it.” Izzy is stunned to realize that, in her whole life, no one has ever asked her this question before. Izzy concocts a plan, with Moody and Pearl’s help, to insert toothpicks into every door throughout the school, jamming the locks. The prank is baffling to the teachers and thrilling to the students, and goes off without a hitch. Mrs. Peters, hungover, drinks coffee from a huge thermos while waiting for her classroom to be unlocked and urinates all over the floor of a student bathroom, earning herself the nickname “Mrs. Pissers.” In the wake of the prank’s success, Izzy begs Mia to allow her to work for free as her photography assistant, and Mia agrees.
On a class trip to the art museum, Pearl and Moody notice a print which seems to feature Mia holding a newborn Pearl in her arms. The photograph is credited to a woman named Pauline Hawthorne. After school, the two of them persuade Lexie to drive them back to the museum—and the three agree that the woman in the photograph is definitely Mia. When Pearl, along with Moody, Izzy, and Lexie, confronts her mother about the photo, Mia grows defensive. Izzy, curious but unable to uncover any useful information about Pauline Hawthorne on her own, enlists her mother’s help. Mrs. Richardson contacts a gallerist named Anita Rees in New York City, who also deflects her questions.
After Thanksgiving, the Richardson family attends a birthday party held by their friends Linda and Mark McCullough. The McCulloughs are in the process of adopting a baby girl—her name is Mirabelle (originally May Ling,) she is Asian, and she is one year old. The baby was left on the steps of a fire station, and the McCulloughs had received a call from a social worker and gained temporary custody of Mirabelle that same day. In the wake of the party, Lexie gushes to Mia about the “miracle” of Mirabelle’s adoption. Meanwhile, Mia has taken a second job at Lucky Palace, a Chinese restaurant, and one of her coworkers, Bebe Chow, recently shared that a year ago she had a baby, but was forced to leave her on the steps of the fire station when she was unable to care for her—perhaps due to postpartum depression. Though Mia’s cardinal rule is to not get attached, she calls Bebe to inform her of her daughter’s whereabouts.
Days later, Bebe arrives at Mia and Pearl’s house, hysterical. She says she went to the McCulloughs’ house to try and talk with them, only to be dragged away by police. Mia comforts Bebe, and implores her to “fight this fight.” The following afternoon, the McCulloughs are ambushed by the local news team, and the evening after that, an interview with Bebe herself airs. The media hounds the McCulloughs, and a local lawyer named Ed Lim offers to represent Bebe pro bono as she sues the state for custody of May Ling. Mr. Richardson, meanwhile, is recruited to assist the McCulloughs. Mrs. Richardson spots an article which mentions that Bebe was informed of May Ling’s whereabouts by a coworker at Lucky Palace—and Mrs. Richardson realizes that the coworker is Mia. Mrs. Richardson does not confront Mia with this information, but resolves to dig into her past in retaliation for the “trouble [she has] stirred up.”
Lexie gets into Yale, and Mrs. Richardson offers to take her, Izzy, and Pearl out for a special girls’ lunch, in hopes of getting some information about Mia’s past out of Pearl. Pearl divulges that she was born in San Francisco, and Mrs. Richardson uses this information to request a copy of Pearl’s birth certificate. When the certificate arrives, Mia’s birthplace is listed; Mrs. Richardson uses that information to track Mia’s family, the Wrights, to Pittsburgh, and she discovers that their son, Warren, died at the age of 17 in 1982. Mrs. Richardson obtains the Wrights’ home address.
Meanwhile, the debate over May Ling rocks Shaker Heights. The Richardsons fight amongst themselves about the morality of the situation, Bebe Chow obtains visitation rights, and the McCulloughs appear on the evening news for an exclusive interview, feeding the fire of the media circus. Mrs. Richardson books a flight to Pennsylvania, angrier than ever at Mia for “heedlessly throwing sparks” into the orderly world of Shaker Heights.
Pearl and Trip begin a clandestine affair; meanwhile, Lexie becomes pregnant with her boyfriend Brian’s baby and makes an appointment at an abortion clinic. Lexie implores Pearl to come along with her, and Pearl agrees. At the clinic, Pearl realizes that Lexie has used her name to book the appointment, and is shocked and briefly upset.
In Pittsburgh, Mrs. Richardson arrives at the Wright home, introducing herself as a journalist working on an article about “promising teen athletes whose careers were cut short.” The Wrights, after some prodding, divulge Mia’s life story. Mia, after a childhood spent behind the lens of a camera given to her by a friendly neighbor, moved to New York City for college, where she studied photography at a prestigious art program. One of her teachers, the famous Pauline Hawthorne, quickly took Mia under her wing, but Mia’s education was cut short when her program revoked her scholarship due to lack of funds. Desperate for a way to continue paying tuition, Mia agreed to act as a surrogate for a wealthy couple, the Ryans, who had been unable to conceive a child. Mia hid her pregnancy from her family except for her brother, who stopped speaking to her months before his life was taken in an accident. When Mia returned home for the funeral, her parents, angered by her pregnancy and her willingness to “sell” her own child, shunned her. Mia, distraught, wrote a note to the Ryans in which she lied about having miscarried, then set off on a road trip across the country—a road trip that has arguably never ended.
In Shaker Heights the custody hearing begins. On the final day of the hearing, Mrs. McCullough is called to the stand. Bebe Chow’s lawyer, Ed Lim, makes it clear that while the McCulloughs would no doubt be fit and loving parents, they would be unable—and perhaps even unwilling—to raise May Ling with any authentic or meaningful connection to Chinese culture.
Moody catches Pearl and Trip together and lashes out in anger, ending his friendship with Pearl. Lexie breaks up with Brian, and seeks refuge and guidance from Mia. With no decision from the judge in sight, Mrs. McCullough and Mrs. Richardson begin scrounging for anything they can use to sway the tides in the McCulloughs’ favor. Mrs. McCullough notes that Bebe had looked heavy and ill a few weeks ago, and wonders if she might have become pregnant and gotten an abortion. Mrs. Richardson calls upon her friend Elizabeth Manwill, who runs a clinic that provides abortions—the same clinic Lexie visited just weeks ago. Mrs. Richardson attempts to pressure Elizabeth into providing her with the clinic’s records, and when Elizabeth refuses, Mrs. Richardson does some snooping of her own. She discovers Pearl’s name in the appointment records, assumes that Pearl and Moody have been sleeping together, and plans to confront Moody that evening.
The McCulloughs win the case. At Mia’s house, a distraught Bebe takes refuge in the kitchen. Izzy, also at the house, asks Mia if Bebe will be all right; Mia replies that “people find a way [to] start over,” like soil after a “prairie fire.” Izzy returns home. That night Mrs. Richardson confronts Moody, but he tells his mother that “Trip [is] the one screwing her.” Izzy, from her room, overhears everything. In the morning, Mrs. Richardson drives to the Warrens’ house. She reveals her knowledge of the Ryan affair, as well as the fact that it was Mia who informed Bebe of May Ling’s whereabouts. She tells Mia to vacate the apartment. That afternoon Mia arrives early to pick Pearl up from school, and tells her that they’ll be leaving Shaker Heights. Pearl, miserable, begins to protest, imagining a life in which the Richardsons take her in as one of their own. Mia convinces Pearl to follow her to the car, and together they return to the house on Winslow to pack up their belongings. Pearl demands to know why they are leaving, and Mia finally divulges the story of her past, and Pearl’s origins. There is a knock at the door; it is Izzy, but Mia sends her away, reminding her once more about the prairie fire anecdote, and telling her that “sometimes you need to start over from scratch.” Izzy searches for Lexie—first at home, where she fights with Moody over his cruelty toward Pearl, and then at Serena Wong’s, where she finds Lexie and confronts her sister over the abortion conducted under Pearl’s name. Izzy returns to the house on Winslow, where the downstairs tenant Mr. Yang tells Izzy that Pearl and Mia have just left.
The next morning, Izzy, distraught and overwhelmed by her family’s betrayals of the Warrens, decides to burn down her home. She packs her belongings, drizzles gasoline throughout the house and lights a match, ready to set out to find Mia and Pearl. The narrative then circles back to the beginning of the novel—the moments just after the fire has consumed the Richardson house. While the Richardson siblings wonder where their sister has gone and laugh together over the trouble she’ll be in when she returns, Mrs. Richardson plans their journey over to the rental house on Winslow, where they’ll stay for an indeterminate length of time. Once there, the family discovers that Mia has left behind a set of emotionally revealing photographs—or, rather, art pieces—that reflect each member of the Richardson family. Mr. Richardson checks his voicemail and discovers a message from a distraught Mr. McCullough, who reveals that, in the night, Bebe stole May Ling from her room and boarded a flight to Canton. Mrs. Richardson resolves to search for Izzy “for as long as it [takes.]”