It’s 1997-1998 in Shaker Heights, Ohio. It’s an upper middle class community that upholds the belief that anti-racism is equivalent to colorblindness. That’s where we meet the Richardsons, a white, wealthy family: Bill and Elena and their four children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy. It’s also where we meet the Warrens, a lower-class family made up of a single mother and her daughter, Mia and Pearl. Elena rents her rental home to Mia and Pearl. That’s how Pearl meets Mood. The two are the same age and quickly become good friends.
The two families begin to intertwine as Mia starts working as a housekeeper for the Richardsons to make a little extra cash and keep her eye on Pearl, who is wooed by the wealth and status of the Richardsons and spends much of her time at their home. As Pearl warms up to Elena, badly wanting that life, so too does Izzy warm up to Mia. Izzy is the black sheep of the Richardson family, the one the others don’t seem to understand. She comes to love Mia and her life and career as an artist and begins to spend time with her as an apprentice.
Another side job of Mia’s is a waitressing job at a Chinese restaurant, where she becomes friendly with her co-worker Bebe Chow. Bebe gave up her baby daughter when she was an infant and left her outside a firehouse. Mia later puts two-and-two together and discovers that Bebe’s daughter has since been adopted by friends of the Richardsons. The intertwining of the Richardsons and Warrens becomes mangled as Mia helps Bebe in a legal battle to win her daughter back from Elena’s good friend. And there is just as much intermingling and mangling happening between Pearl and the Richardson brood.
There are figurative fires sparking everywhere throughout the book, in Mia’s backstory, in Lexie’s current story and so on and so on. They all erupt in a literal fire engulfing the Richardsons’ home, which is used as a framing device bookending the story.
The show takes the bones of the book and portrays all this excellently onscreen with the talent of Reese Witherspoon as Elena Richardson and Kerry Washington as Mia Warren. (Not to mention the phenomenal kids who play the teenaged children.) But the show makes some serious changes, and I actually think most are for the better.
The book is not bad. In fact, it’s freaking great. Its themes around race are centered on Bebe Chow and how she is treated in the justice system as a poor Asian woman compared to the rich, white people. The TV series on Hulu, however, takes race a huge step further by making the Warrens black. Mia and Pearl are never explicitly said to be black in the novel. The mention of Pearl’s frizzy hair is as close as the author gets. By making them black, many more stories lines explicitly touch on race in the series, broadening the themes of the novel beyond wealth and socioeconomic status. The series came out a few months before the death of George Floyd, so it’s impossible to have known how much the series would resonate now, in retrospect, but it certainly does.
In terms of plot, the series adds a lot more backstory for Elena and a few more subplots between the children – which also touch on race. But the biggest change the series makes is the way it unravels all of the secrets the characters are keeping: about abortions, lovers, postpartum depression, childbearing, finances. In the book, many of the secrets remain just that: secrets. While a handful of characters escape Shaker Heights at the end of the novel, so many things are left undiscussed and unaddressed. We, the readers, are left to assume whether or not those conversations ever happen. In the TV series, however, no one can keep their mouth shut! The secrets not only come out but are hurled at other characters like giant fireballs across a room, only building the deep-seeded rage between several people and leading to even more outlandish actions.
When it comes to the massive, literal fire at the end (and technically beginning) of the story, it’s clear in the series that there is a handful of people involved in setting it. It takes the entire series to finally bond these characters together, and when they comes together in a spiteful act of arsonistic rage, it is ridiculously satisfying in a way that the ending of the book isn’t.