Reviewed by Jean Arboleda
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE
By Celeste Ng
400 pp. Penguin Press.
“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.”
It seems fitting that Celeste Ng’s poignant sophomore novel Little Fires Everywhere begins with the Richardson family’s house burning down. The incident marks the peak of a sensational year for the Richardson family and their community in Shaker Heights, Ohio – and it all began with the arrival of a mysterious mother-daughter pair.
By all accounts, Shaker Heights is the epitome of perfection – a modern-day, all-American Utopia, where everything is planned to the smallest detail, from the schedule of mowing lawns, down to the colors of the houses. Nothing is unexpected, and change is unwelcome. No one believes in, and embodies, this idea of idyllic perfection more than Elena Richardson, who has lived in Shaker Heights her entire life and cannot fathom any other way of existence.
One June day, though, Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl arrive in town. Their many eccentricities immediately stand out in stark contrast to the Richardsons and the rest of Shaker Heights. Where the Richardsons have framed paintings, overstuffed sofas, and a garage full of cars, the Warrens have thrifted, mismatched furniture and a battered Volkswagen Rabbit. Elena is a journalist, and her husband Bill is a lawyer; Mia is an artist, well accustomed to juggling side jobs while working on her art. The Richardson children – Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy – are all in the same school and have their whole lives planned out; Mia and Pearl are independent and nomadic, having never stayed in one place for too long.
It’s not long before the two families are inexplicably drawn together. Pearl strikes up an unlikely friendship with Lexie, Trip, and Moody, while Izzy, who has long been the black sheep of the family, discovers an unexpected ally in Mia.
As the novel progresses, tracing back the series of events that eventually lead to the Richardson family’s house burning down, Mia and Pearl slowly upend the status quo. When close family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, Elena and Mia are pitted against each other, and Elena sets out to uncover Mia’s past.
“She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them she did. […] Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completely different life, who seemed to make her own rules without apologies.”
Celeste Ng is at her best when she is examining our desire for perfection, and revealing the weight we bear when we crave for everything to be just so. She captured it in the Lee family’s struggle in her debut novel Everything I Never Told You, and here she does a wonderful job of exploring the contrast between Elena and Mia. In Elena, we find a woman who fervently believes that rules are made to be followed, and that pragmatism trumps passion. In Mia, we see a woman who firmly believes in her capacity for change, who possesses the emotional resilience required of constantly leaving and starting all over again. Two vastly different ways of seeing the world, at odds with, and yet also strangely fascinated with the other:
“It bothers you, doesn’t it? I think you can’t imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got. […] It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.”
The novel wrestles with the concepts of motherhood and family, and how this is deeply intertwined with identity, as the Richardson family is forced to face some devastating truths about themselves. What is motherhood beyond flesh and blood, and who gets to decide? Reading is an exercise in empathy – while this book asks tough questions, it leaves room for the reader to come to their own conclusions.
“You’ll always be sad about this. But it doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. It’s just something that you have to carry.”
At its heart, this is a novel about the choices we make in life, and how each one, no matter how small, has an impact. There’s really no way of knowing whether we made the right or the wrong choice. All you can do is carry the weight, and move forward. The little fires we spark everyday – in thoughts, and words, and actions, and secrets – light the paths that we take. It is enough.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng will be available soon at Fully Booked. You can reserve this and other upcoming titles here.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jeanarboleda.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]