From the Jacket
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 wit her teenage 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 wit 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. LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood- and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.
“It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
With this outstanding sophomore novel, Celeste Ng returns with her elegant, clear, and concise writing style. LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE is literary without being dry, and thrilling without being trite. It’s highly engaging, and a quick read, but it’s still slow paced (which sounds contradictory but somehow applies). Ng is an enormously talented writer; she is brilliant at sneaking little details into the story, and revealing the underlying motivations of each character. LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE took me on a roller coaster of emotions, from joy to confusion to pure anger, but I believe that to be part of the reason it’s so enjoyable.
“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
Ng uses an assortment of events in this novel to tell the real story: that of the relationship between mothers and daughters. The theme of motherhood is explored through Mia and her daughter Pearl, through Elena and her four children (centered around Izzy), and through the custody battle that divides the town and makes everyone question what makes a mother. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t exactly like any of the characters–Elena was cruel, Izzy was annoying, and Mia was frustrating–but in some way their unlikeability made the story more impactful. Since there is no clear favorite character, I could separate myself from any bias I might’ve had to truly understand the messages Ng meant to portray.
“The problem with rules… was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time they were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure what side of the line you stood on.”
Overall, I really enjoyed LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, but I don’t think it measured up to the sheer brilliance of Ng’s 2014 debut, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, which remains one of my all time favorite novels. In comparison, FIRES felt a bit more disorganized in terms of plot, with a less memorable story and bland characters. However, Ng’s writing in this second novel is stronger and and even more skillfully constructed. Though LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE was a slight disappointment, Celeste Ng remains a favorite author of mine.