Review: Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
Published September 12, 2017
Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons' friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia's.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.
Given all the hype about this book I was worried my actual experience would fall short of the high expectations, but instead, the story was more full of heart than any expectation prepared me for.
After the first few pages where we're introduced to a lot of characters at once, it's incredibly easy to fall into the narrative flow of this book. There is a clean frankness in Ng's voice and in my experience as a writer and a reader, books like this, that are so easy to read, mean that there is a lot of careful work and construction to make it that easy.
I'm only a couple of years younger than most of the teenagers at the center of the book and boy is it strange to look back at growing up in the nineties. There is a certain shame I felt in reading this book, having been a suburban white girl in the nineties who was doing her best to be "woke" before woke was a thing, never mind social media or a great widening of the world offered by both the internet and growing up in general. I didn't worry about representation and I still thought that being "colorblind" or somehow not seeing race or culture was the best way to foster respect and inclusivity with the handful of minority students in community. It was interesting and necessary even to look back at my former and maybe even current blindspots when it comes to how we treat race in our country.
This book is so much about the "other," the people and ideas that fall outside of easy categorization, and the preference for a specific kind of order from an affluent community. It's also deeply about motherhood and what it means to claim ownership of that motherhood. And within those two things, it means its also about identity. How much of where we come from defines who we are, especially from one generation to the next? What makes a mother a mother? And can a mother's love be detrimental to her child?
Overall I feel like I can't possibly do this book justice in my reviewing, such as it is. It was a beautiful experience, falling into the world that jumps around in time, from various lives of people who are all, for the most part, genuinely trying to do the best they can, even if that creates conflict.