Little Fires Everywhere // Celeste Ng

In this 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.”

-Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

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?”

-Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

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 was 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.”

-Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

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 just so happens to be one of my all time favorite novels.  In comparison, Little 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.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

The Interestings // Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings is one of those novels that you either love or hate, and after turning the last page, I can happily say that I fell in love with this book.  I found it to be highly captivating, with memorable and, yes, interesting characters that seemed so real to me.

From the back cover:

The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable.  Decades later the bond remains, but so much else has changed.  Not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence.  The kind of creativity rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty- not to mention age fifty.  Wolitzer follows her characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, resigns herself to a more practical occupation.  Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing guitar and becomes an engineer.  But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful- true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding.  Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters, The Interestings explores the way that class, power, art, money, success, and friendship can shift and tilt precariously over the course of a life.

“People could not get enough of what they had lost, even if they no longer wanted it.”

-Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

The Interestings follows a group of six people from their teenage years at a summer camp in the Berkshires to complicated adulthood in their fifties.  Jules Jacobson is the main voice of the story, though friends Ethan, Ash, Jonah, and camp directors Manny and Edie make frequent appearances.  One of the things I appreciated most about these characters is that they felt so natural and realistic; each person had their imperfections, and those flaws made them who they are.

The only complaint I have about The Interestings is that I wanted more, specifically more on Jules’s teenage life outside of Spirit-in-the-Woods camp: more of her life during the school year, more of an explanation of her father’s death, etc.  Though the novel is over 500 pages (depending on the edition), I believe it was missing some key background information that could have gone to great heights to improve the story.

“You didn’t always need to be the dazzler, the firecracker, the one who cracked everyone up, or made everyone want to sleep with you, or be the one who wrote and starred in the play that got the standing ovation.  You could cease to be obsessed with the idea of being interesting.”

-Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer expertly captures the human experience and the flaws that sometimes, unfortunately, define who we are.  The Interestings is a novel about art, love, life, and death told through an ensemble of characters who have certainly experienced them all.  I would highly recommend this novel and I look forward to reading more of Wolitzer’s work!

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Modern Lovers // Emma Straub

With end-of-semester demands drastically increasing, I found myself craving a light, easy read, and the bright turquoise spine of Modern Lovers seemed to be calling my name.  Thus, I escaped the university insanity and transported myself to summertime Brooklyn in the hopes of enjoying a cute summery story.  But Modern Lovers was a bit different than what I anticipated.

From the back cover:

Friends and former college bandmates Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have watched one another marry, buy real estate, and start businesses and families, all while trying to hold on to the identities of their youth.  But nothing ages them like having to suddenly pass the torch to their own offspring.  Now nearing fifty, they all live within shouting distance deep in gentrified Brooklyn, and the trappings of the adult world seem to have arrived with ease.  But the summer their children reach maturity (and start sleeping together), the fabric of the adults’ lives begins to unravel, and the secrets and revelations that are finally let loose can never be reclaimed.

“Choices were easy to make until you realized how long life could be.”

-Emma Straub, Modern Lovers

Quirky yet one-dimensional hipsters make up our cast of characters.  There is Elizabeth, a near-50 year old real estate agent stuck in a rut, and her husband Andrew, who faces a mid-life crisis and, during an attempt to find a new life’s purpose, becomes entranced by a hip new co-op in the neighborhood.  There is former college bandmate Zoe, grappling with the fact that her marriage is in shambles, and her wife Jane, an eccentric chef with whom Zoe operates a trendy Brooklyn restaurant called Hyacinth.  Adolescent Harry, son of Elizabeth and Andrew, experiments with becoming the “cool” teenager his parents once were and begins a relationship with childhood friend Ruby, daughter of Zoe and Jane and a recent high school graduate struggling to decide how she wants to spend the rest of her life.  Together, these characters represent the complexity of human relationships, but individually, they lack development and seem engulfed by a singular aspect of their personality.

The plot of Modern Lovers seemed a bit confused.  Without getting into spoilers, I feel like a lot of different events were haphazardly thrown in but not fully explored like they should’ve been.  I enjoyed the book and its quick wittiness, but I think it could’ve been more than just a “beach read” had it gone into a bit more depth and gave more background on the various characters and their complicated history.

“Why couldn’t everyone just stay young forever?  If not on the outside, then just on the inside, where no one ever got too old to be optimistic.”

-Emma Straub, Modern Lovers

Modern Lovers truly is a book about (yes, you guessed it) modern lovers, in every sense of the word.  Straub deeply explores every kind of relationship: husband and wife, friend and lover, even cat and owner.  She expertly examines human nature, what drives and motivates us, in a way that helped me gain perspective on some of my own relationships.  Overall, I can say that I enjoyed Modern Lovers for what it is: a light beach read, but I went into it hoping for more and came out disappointed.

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.

Behold the Dreamers // Imbolo Mbue

While Behold the Dreamers may be a fictional narrative, it is a powerful look into being an immigrant in America as told by an author who actually experienced the process firsthand.  It contains insightful commentary on racism and white privilege in America in a behind-the-scenes way.  Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers describes the hope that Obama gave African-Americans and African immigrants when he first entered the White House.

“Even in New York City, even in a place of many nations and cultures, men and women, young and old, rich and poor, preferred their kind when it came to those they kept closest. And why shouldn’t they? It was far easier to do so than to spend one’s limited energy trying to blend into a world one was never meant to be a part of.”

-Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers

From the back cover:

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son.  In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers.  Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at their summer home in the Hamptons.  With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ facades.  Then the financial world is rocked with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the global economy.  Desperate to keep Jende’s job, which grows more tenuous by the day, the Jongas try to protect the Edwardses from certain truths, even as their own marriage threatens to fall apart.  As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

This novel really contains two stories- one of a wealthy Manhattanite business executive who loses his job and all hell breaks loose (basically), and the other of a hardworking, hopeful immigrant family struggling to make ends meet but doing everything they can to stay in America.  These stories have been told before, but it’s the creativity Mbue uses to craft her novel that makes it extraordinary.

Sometimes I find myself struggling to really immerse myself into stories that are narrated in third person, but Behold the Dreamers gave me no trouble at all.  I think part of it is because of the superb character development.  I just had to keep reading to find out what was going to happen to Jende, Neni, and all of the characters I became invested in.  Even side characters like Neni’s college professor had a purpose in the end.  Mbue did a fantastic job of tying up all the loose ends to create a satisfying conclusion to her tale.

Read this one if you miss Obama (because who doesn’t?!).

You can find this book on Goodreads and Amazon.