Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Penguin Press
Page Count: 336
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Good Reads Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.17)
My Rating: ★★★★★ (4.5)
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously 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 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.
I received this book in a monthly subscription box I used to belong to. It was a special edition, curated by Celeste Ng and everything inside was the perfect ensemble for setting the mood of the novel.
I always loved the idiom and the concept of fires representing the problems and damage created by others by neglect or mistreatment, even when it’s unintended. Specifically, in this book, the problems seemed to be set or triggered by the arrival of the non-conformist family into the world of the pragmatic and repressed. This was bound to ignite some flames, but what I didn’t expect was how the collision of two families set off a chain of events from multiple points already smoldering underneath the surface and once given a spark, spread like wildfire.
The opening scene is set in the present with a beautiful introduction of the suburban utopia set ablaze by the Warren and Richardson family rendezvous and the literal fire that was set due to their deeply intertwined encounters.
“Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabell, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”
Over the course of the first chapter, we are given a sense of the tension and most likely tumultuous history. What follows is the backstory, the past from when the Warren’s arrived the previous June until the moment the fire department cleared the scene in the Richardson’s home. In between is a torrid journey that takes us deep into the lives, experiences and moral compasses of each of the main characters and ourselves.
At its core of it all are mother-daughter relationships, the trials, and tribulations of parenting, family dynamics, and processes.
Family dynamics and relationships are seldom straightforward or simple. So often the complexities end up as a result of misunderstandings, frustration, alienation and even at times acts of desperation and clouded, irrational choices.
The power of this novel is Ng’s character development and her ability to create a deep sense of empathy and understanding of each one the mother’s through the course of the book.
Through three completely different perspectives of each of the very different mothers in the book, Ng delves into the various extremes a mother may go through – colored and influenced by experience and culture, and how that impacts their own and the lives of those around them.
There is Mrs. Richardson’s fierce drive -bordering obsessive order and control – to preserve her ideals and beliefs in the world she constructed around herself and for her family to prevent harm and heartbreak. In order to protect and drive out the perceived threat that could destroy that foundation and set their entire existence up in smoke, she embarks on a frenzied mission that ultimately ends up driving away what is most precious to her.
Then there are Mia’s intentions, which as polar opposite as it and she appears, are the same but in expressed and played out in another manner. Always on the run with a tight grip on a mysterious past and secret life, what comes across as impulsive and selfish is just another form of desperation to keep her family from potential upheaval and loss.
It’s all the same dynamics and instincts that drove Bebe to an extreme choice and into action not once, but twice within a year and touched off the custody battle that found Mrs. Richardson, Mia, the town and the reader at opposite ends of support and judgment before examining their own motivations.
As the story unfolds Ng poses several moral questions for the characters and reader alike at the same time. What would you do in the same situation? What would cross the line? and what would you value more?
Thought-provoking and poignant Ng confronts the reality that no parent is perfect and no choices are easy. Even when filled with our best intentions, things don’t always turn out right or are understood by those we try to protect most.