Little Fires Everywhere: Review
I read Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You last year as part of my Asian Pacific American book club and I fell head over heels for her prose. She has this way of writing that is blunt and raw, but also filled with nuance. Ng proved once again, with Little Fires Everywhere, that she is a master of character portraits and crafting a story that lingers with you long after you turn the last page.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned -- from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors 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 teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town--and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
There are so many things to dissect about Little Fires Everywhere, and without being overly vague, that's perhaps what I loved most about reading this book. Ng weaves different plots and points of views together so seamlessly that I almost have a hard time believing this book is a work of fiction, and not some ethnography. We follow a few main characters: Mia, an artist mother who does what she can to make odds meet. Her daughter Pearl, a curiously intelligent young woman who has always longed for mooring. Mrs. (Elena) Richardson, born and raised in Shaker Heights with strong convictions of what is right and what is wrong. Moody Richardson, Mrs. Richardson's third child and a thoughtful young man who immediately befriends Pearl. We encounter several other characters who are just as fully dimensional, but the four above get the most face-time with us readers.
Not one character is propped as the "hero" or "villain" of this story. Each character is morally ambiguous and you are made to question their motivations and actions. This is what Ng succeeds in doing so well- describing micro-aggressions from the point of view of someone who does not believe they are doing anything wrong. There is no better setting to explore the intentions of a person versus how they are perceived, than a town like Shaker Heights, where everything is planned to the dot and everyone has certain expectations placed on them. Of course, we as a reader are left to make our own judgments no matter how unsettled our emotions are.
Little Fires Everywhere is not a thriller in the sense that there is fast-paced action, but the psychological drama that we must navigate is tremendously exciting. One of the core themes that struck me most is the meaning of motherhood, and the extent to which a mother will protect her children. We see this enacted by Mia and Mrs. Richardson, and of course during the legal battle between a Shake Heights couple and a Chinese immigrant over the custody of a Chinese-American baby. This very question is posed during the legal battle: what determines motherhood- love or biology? Once you reach the conclusion of the book, you realize just how pervasive this theme is throughout the characters' key decisions.
This book was complex, but easy to devour and fall in love with. Ng has a unique storytelling voice and I can't wait to see what she comes up with next!