Book Title and Author: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Publication Date and Publisher: September 12, 2017 by Penguin Press
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction, Adult
Pages: 384 pages
Buy on Amazon.com
Date Read: September 1, 2017
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 of Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
Before sharing my review, I want to share with you what a brilliant author Celeste Ng undoubtedly is. When I read her first novel, the bestselling Everything I Never Told You in 2014, I was stunned, and my immediate thought was THIS is how sensitive, engaging contemporary, literary fiction is written. It was emotional and compelling, and the characters were so engaging, so precisely crafted that I wanted, no I craved more! I wanted to delve deeply into the plot, the characters, and analyze every line, every quote, every nuance of speech and action. Immediately, I went into my office to change my syllabi and add Everything I Never Told You for that upcoming fall semester knowing the book must be taught in the classroom because its perfection must be read. Oh, I was right! It has been such a pleasure and joy to teach that breathlessly readable novel, and I can already say with 100% certainty that Little Lies Everywhere, which is just as brilliant, compelling, and thought-provoking is already on my syllabi for next semester!
Little Fires Everywhere is one of the most riveting and brightly burning books that I have read this year. It is a captivating portrayal of family, community, and class in America that explores the sensitive and complex topics of abortion, surrogacy, multi-cultural adoption, views towards immigrants, and race. It is also a story of betrayal, lies, misunderstanding, trust, desires, and longing. At its very heart, it is a brilliant and evocative look at motherhood and what not only makes a “good” and “bad” mother but who even has the right to claim to be called mother—and lose that right. From the first page, I was fully immersed in the story, and that did not let up until the last page; there were two nights I stayed up reading it until way past 3 am just because I could not put it down!
Celeste Ng is an unexcelled expert at brilliantly drawn plots and creating characters who are wonderfully fascinating, whether they are flawed or not. I’m a reader who loves stunning characterizations, the connections an author weaves from one character to another, and the way each character adds to the storyline. Ng is a master at this! She is not afraid to have her characters grapple with hard issues that expose their vulnerability. Nor is she afraid of exposing their flaws: selfishness, jealousy, criticalness, or their very human feelings of fear, cravings to belong, desires, and the poignancy of a mother’s unrelenting love for her child that carries this book from start to finish. One thing I thought Ng used to marvelous and bold effect, and which made the connections with her characters even more intimate, was the omniscient style POV she uses to narrate the story. Instead of detracting from the characters (as it often can when used negligibly), it adds dramatic irony, is unique, and gives a highly distinctive voice throughout this novel.
In the novel, we are introduced to many characters—major and minor and all make an impact in one way or another. But it is the wealthy Richardson family along with unconventional, gypsy-like, artist Mia Warren and her fifteen-year-old daughter Pearl that are the primary players in this novel. It is in these characters interactions and the full immersion into the other’s lives that causes quietly smoldering embers to begin unfurling into a slow, steady burn until an inferno rages inside both the characters and the storyline.
Even the title of the book could not be more apt since when we meet the Richardson family, all but Izzy that is, their house is aflame, and the Shaker Heights gossip mill is running rampant about who set the blazing house fire! It’s the hottest gossip of the summer!
The Richardson family is affluent and successful, much like the suburban community of Shaker Heights where they live, which is a town built on rules, planning, security, stability, and conformity. They seem to be the perfect (almost) family living in perfect suburbia: Bill, a contented lawyer; Elena, a reporter and the oh, so rule abiding pillar of the community; Lexie, the spoiled princess; Trip, the stereotypical jock; Moody, smart and sensitive; and Izzy, misunderstood and unaccepted. Yet, there are hidden depths to them all, dormant sparks inside them just waiting to be lit. All it will take is one match, one spark.
That spark is Mia and Pearl who move to town and rent the Richardson’s rental house. Mia is a brilliant artist, a photographer; she is a non-conformist, a free spirit, a wanderer like a bird taking flight whenever she fancies, never staying in one place very long. She is the antithesis of Mrs. Richardson. Yet, Pearl, shy, genius, pretty, craves a home, a place to stay longer than a few months. A place to put down her roots, so Mia has promised Shaker Heights will be that place. As Pearl searches for the normalcy, she has never had, she begins to spend all her time with Moody, Lexie, and Trip where she finds friendship—and young love.
Pearl is also fascinated and drawn to Mrs. Richardson, a woman so at odds with her own mother. In the same way, Izzy begins spending all her time with Mia since she is not only so different from Mrs. Richardson, but Mia is the only one to understand her and accept her differences. Mia even becomes the confidante and secret keeper to Lexie, acting in the role of mother when Lexie cannot confide in her own. In these moments, we realize that Ng is telling the reader that sometimes family is not only the one we are born in but the one we choose.
It was in these parent-child interactions that become more pronounced during the multi-cultural baby adoption case (which I will not go in any details about other than what is in the synopsis) that shakes Shaker Heights to its very core—and makes enemies of Elena and Mia who are at odds about the case that Ng probes deeply into what it means to be a mother. She intensely questions the very quintessence of motherhood, including who decides, or has the right to decide, about raising a child and when. Being a mother, this was emotional, intense, and sobering in so many ways. This quote not only sums up all the emotions of motherhood magnificently but the core of the novel:
“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once.”
The novel is full of so much beauty, intelligence, and humanity that I had to reread certain parts to absorb Ng’s remarkable ability to see into the human psyche. Her writing is clever and insightful, and the way she connects every trail of the storylines until they ignite into little fires all over is stunning prose that is more than beautiful. It is vivid and imaginative almost like Mia’s photographs. Although the novel ultimately ends in flames, both literal and metaphorical, and several of the character’s actions have cataclysmic effects, the novel’s exquisiteness consumed me.
I highly recommend Little Fires Everywhere, and Ng has proven herself to me (although I had no doubts at all) to be an extraordinary, highly intelligent author with her follow up to Everything I Never Told You. I highly anticipate her next book!
**Thank you, NetGalley, Penguin Press, and Celeste Ng for an ARC in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.**