Little Fires Everywhere
By: Celeste Ng
(If you are like me and you feel slightly panicked when you come across names that have consonants where there should be vowels, do not fear. Celeste’s last name is pronounced “ing”.)
352 pages (perfect weekend read)
Published Sept. 12, 2017
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 with her teenaged 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 with 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?” (Ch.16)
Wow. This book surprised me. This is a challenging book, not in the sense that it is difficult to read or that it has a lot of big words. This is a challenging book because it makes you think hard– about what you want out of your life, what it means to be a mother, where you stand in discussions around race, and what you would do if _____.
Celeste Ng grew up in Shaker Heights herself. Even if you didn’t grow up there, I think readers can find something from the supposed suburban utopia that they can identify with. That’s part of what makes this book so gripping.
Maybe you live or grew up in a strict, rule-oriented neighborhood; you live in an area that claims to be “blind” to race; you have friends and neighbors who count and keep a permanent tally of favors they have done for you; or your kids are always hanging out with friends from the neighborhood, and you can never actually be sure what they are doing. Everyone can relate to parts of this story.
The characters are carefully developed and, once again, so relatable that they feel real. You will find yourself reading along, coming across one of the characters, and thinking, “OMG, she is exactly like so-and-so next door!” or “Wow, this could be my daughter she’s writing about.”
The plot built slowly for the first half of the book as Celeste spent a great deal of effort weaving the stories of the characters such that when conflicts began to swell, I found myself hooked. The major conflict in the book centers around a Chinese-American immigrant named Bebe, her biological daughter named May Ling (Mirabelle), and the McCulloughs, a rich husband and wife who have struggled with infertility for over a decade.
A fight over custody of May Ling leaves readers questioning their own opinions and morals. Who would be the better mother? What does it even mean to be a mother? What does it mean to be a “fit” parent? How important is it for an adopted child to be raised in a way that honors their cultural heritage? Does there even have to be a right or wrong choice? Can’t both options be right, but in their own ways? What makes someone qualified to determine which option is more “right”?
Little Fires Everywhere is the kind of book that will keep you thinking even after the book is over. Speaking of the ending, I’m not really sure I can form a single emotion (“It was good!” “It left me wanting more.”) that can suffice. The conclusions of some of the characters’ conflicts had me feeling disappointed, shocked, validated, angry, and smug. I guess if I had to come up with one word, I would say the ending left me feeling content. It was not an ending I expected, but it was not something out of the realm of possibility. I found myself wanting more: Is Bebe OK? Does Izzy find what she’s looking for? What about the McCulloughs? What happens with the Richardsons? Where are Mia and Pearl now? But like in all good books, Celeste ends Little Fires Everywhere in a place that guides your imagination to take over, which is exactly what I’ll be doing for awhile.
P.R. (Post Review)
Favorite Character: Mia. She’s very sure of herself and protective over Pearl. She makes sacrifices to live the life she wants while raising Pearl in a way that is humble yet full. She takes no crap from anyone, especially from Mrs. Richardson, and she has a strong will. The difficulties she has faced in life have made her a strong woman and mother. She’s free from any bonds, both physical and self-imposed, and her free spirit draws people to her. Yet, her struggles as a mother are as real as anyone else’s: feeling unfit, feeling guilty for being the cause of so much change in Pearl’s life, feeling like she’s losing touch with Pearl as Pearl goes through her teenage years. Mia as a character provides one answer to Little Fires Everywhere‘s central question: Maybe the best mother doesn’t have to come from a neat, two-parent family who lives in a two-story, brick house in a nice neighborhood.
“Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way. . . . Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago, when we were in Nebraska. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. . . . People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.” (Ch. 18)
“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. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.” (Ch. 18)
Last words: Mothers, buy this book for your daughters. Daughters, buy this book for your mothers. Sisters, buy this book for your sisters. Ladies, buy this book for your girlfriends. And if you’re a guy, you’ll love this book, too. Whatever you do, don’t let this one pass you by.