Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng Little Brown 9th November 2017
This is the story of small town, Shaker Heights, Cleveland. A town with a picture perfect image. The lawns are all beautifully manicured, the houses aesthetically pleasing, the citizens regimented in their conformity, a place and a role for everything.
The Richardson family conform, headed up by mother Elena Richardson, born and raised in Shaker Heights, now a local journalist with three children, and a lawyer husband.
Their life is an ordered one, lived by the rules of Shaker Heights and their parents but all that changes with the arrival of Mia and her daughter Pearl. Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl have lived a nomadic life, until Mia decides that Pearl needs friends and stability, and rents out the Richardson’s apartment.
As the families lives become intertwined, the order of their lives changes. There are no longer clear demarcations between what is right and wrong, and when family friends of the Richardson’s attempt to adopt an abandoned Chinese baby, a custody battle ensues, that divides the families and the community of Shaker Heights.
Add in a past that Mia would love to leave behind and hide from her daughter and Elena Richardson’s persistent pursuit to discover the truth, and you have one hell of a novel.
The characters are just brilliant.
Elena Richardson is the perfect mother, and wife, her life ordered, and contained. I found her to be quite irritating, with her holier than though attitude, and her own self importance. As the story unravels then so does Elena as she is forced to accept that perhaps not everything can be planned or worked out as we want or expect.
Mia, is a free spirit, hugely protective of her daughter, yet easy going and broad minded. I loved the hint of mystery surrounding Mia’s past as well as her determination to succeed not only as an artist but also as a mother.
Izzy is the rebellious one, the odd one out, hated by her siblings and treated harshly by her mother. You couldn’t help but feel sorry for Izzy, and her unwillingness to conform and follow the clearly defined rules in the family. The easy going free spirited Mia is a magnet to which Izzy becomes attracted, someone who accepts her for who she is, and encourages her to be whom she wants to be.
Tripp is your typical high school jock, well liked and popular with the girls. He appears as a slightly superficial character at first until you discover that there is more to him both emotionally and intellectually.
Moody is the quiet intellectual one, besotted with Pearl and desperate for more than friendship.
Lexi, is the all American high school teenager a popular grade A student, destined for Yale with a steady boyfriend. Life has always been easy for Lexie, until confronted with a problem that will challenge and make her question her life and those around her.
Lastly is Pearl, delighted to finally have a permanent home and friends. After the chaos of her nomadic life the Richardson house provides her with the ordered family life she has never experienced.
Ng’s handling of all the complexities of the story are brilliant, each revelation, each drama laid out before the reader. I liken it to a present with multiple layers of wrapping, the suspense and drama increasing as each layer is pulled away. You want to savour each layer, but cannot stop yourself reading more quickly, fully immersing yourself in the unfolding story.
The custody battle was the perfect tool to show the clear divides in the community, but more importantly what it means to be a mother. What makes a good mother? Just because you abandon your baby as you do not have the financial means to look after your baby does that automatically make you a bad mother? Can we still be a good mother even if we did not give birth to the child and how does the differing ways we bring our children affect them in the future? All thought provoking questions that Ng’s story poses for the reader.
The small town setting only serves to exaggerate the differences between the families, exposing the narrow mindedness, hypocrisy and racism that never seems to diminish, no matter how hard we try to eradicate it.
When secrets are finally exposed, and the lives of the families are shattered, we learn that no matter what is expected of us or what we suppress, it can all be uprooted. Ng makes us question our emotions, why we do things, why our lives are as they are, what it could have been and what it can be.
Little Fires Everywhere has been huge in America and having read and loved Everything I Never Told You my expectations were high and I was not disappointed. From the opening page as the Richardson family home burns to the ground I was hooked and if life had not got in the way would have devoured in one sitting.
The writing is truly wonderful, the story utterly and totally compelling.
This is definitely my book of the year.
Thank you To Grace Vincent and Little Brown for a proof copy to read and review.
About the author
Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Shaker Heights Ohio. She graduated from Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Celeste’s fiction and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, The Times and The Guardian.
Celeste’s debut novel Everything I never Told You was a New York Times bestseller. It was also the winner of the Massachusetts Book award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, The ALA’s Alex Award and the Medici Book Club award,
Celeste currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.