Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng published in 2017.
“In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads to the colours 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.”
This is one of the first books that I’ve bought in a really long time, so you know I’m expecting great things from Little Fires Everywhere.
This novel takes place in Shaker Heights, where everything is planned to perfection, from the houses to the people’s lives who live within them. The ideal of example of this is Elena Richardson and her family. When an eccentric mother-daughter duo Mia and Pearl moves into the neighbourhood, the entire community of Shaker Heights is, pardon my pun, quite shaken up. The reader follows as Mrs. Richardson becomes slightly obsessed with Mia’s past, all in the name of protecting her best friend from losing her soon to be adopted daughter from her biological Chinese mother, which happens to be Mia’s co-worker. It sounds complicated when compiled into one sentence, but the storyline is structured very well so there’s nothing to be confused about while reading.
One of my favourite things to do when I crack open a new book is finding out the significance of the title. In this case, it was mentioned within the first 10 pages of the novel when the Richardson’s were discussing how their house had gone up in flames, Lexie stating,
“The fireman had said there were little fires everywhere…”
I got goosebumps when I read this and it made me so excited to delve into the story and find out why there had been these little fires all over the house. As the story continues looking back on the last few weeks leading up to this event, the reader finds out later during the climax of the story. This caused the book to end at the same time it began, which I found to be an interesting plot mechanic. Most questions are answered by the end and loose ends are mainly wrapped up.
Looking at the characters, I had so many feelings towards Mrs. Richardson throughout the book. They fluctuated, sometimes I pitied her and rarely I even related to her situation. Yet most of the time I felt myself rolling my eyes at the things she was thinking and saying. I think everyone knows a Mrs. Richardson; manipulative, controlling and seemingly oblivious to her damning actions, or even worse, is keenly aware of the havoc she’s causing. This was a character that was made to be hated by the reader. The distaste I had for this character only grew due to the third person omniscient POV, as the thoughts and feelings of the rest of the characters built a strong case against Mrs. Richardson’s behaviour.
There really is no main character in this book, since all of them get their time in the spotlight. If anything, it centres around the drama between Mia and Mrs. Richardson. They are polar opposites in every way imaginable, and this causes them to clash during a custody battle of May Ling/Maribelle. Here, a largely debated question is explored: what makes a mother; biology or love, or perhaps a mix of both? Yet Ng also focuses on the hardships of adolescence through the teenage characters. She takes us on the journey of awkward puppy love with Pearl and Trip, unrequited admiration for someone through Moody, the unexplainable need to rebel with Izzy, and even the touchy subject of abortion with Lexie.
A major theme that was tackled in these pages was privilege, and more specifically, individuals not being aware of said privilege, Mrs. Richardson being the perfect example of this. One character witnessing privilege in action is Pearl with her astonishment to how the Richardson’s live, viewing it almost like a fairytale, describing the “soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass…” and how the family looked like they “arranged themselves into a tableau for her enjoyment…in a state of domestic perfection…” I thought this scene was very impactful, both for the reader and the characters, since this began the divide between the classes in Shaker Heights. We really start to see the difference between those who think they’re better than others, and everyone else that is supposedly beneath them.
Another example of privilege (some may even consider this white privilege), is the custody battle of May Ling/Maribelle between a well-off white family, the McCullough’s and Bebe, the Chinese immigrant who left her child at a fire station. The argument used against Bebe is that she is an unfit mother due to her weak financial state, yet no one takes into account her immigrant status that may be holding her back from achieving a notable job. This is such a common issue with immigrant parents in America, and it’s represented so well in Bebe’s situation.
The last thing I want to talk about regarding privilege is one of the best moments of the book in my opinion. This came about when Mia was confronting Mrs. Richardson about her picture-perfect life, saying,
“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. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose….It terrifies you…”
This statement gave me chills in the best way, mainly because it’s the words I had been wanting to yell at Mrs. Richardson the whole novel, and frankly every other blissfully ignorant person I’ve personally met. It’s worded in such a luminously persuasive manner that even Mrs. Richardson can’t deny it. I was so extremely satisfied and even found myself with a huge self-righteous smile on my face.
Little Fires Everywhere forces the reader to ponder over the question: is there such thing as a perfect life, and if so, what does it look like? Now, despite all my praise for this was not the best book I’ve ever read. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good book with a tantalizing plot and interesting characters. But is it a life-changing book? Not really. I just wasn’t really blown away by it like I thought I’d be. I definitely don’t regret buying it, in fact, I recommend it as a casual summer read for anyone who can get their hands on it. I just think all the hype I heard about this book got my expectations a bit too high.