Review: Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2017)

When Little Fires Everywhere first launched last fall, I was not eager to read about fires since most of the state of California was going up in smoke. However, the fires in Ng’s suspenseful novel are more interior: embers of old secrets and tangled emotions. Sparks are ignited by plot twists and propelled by complex and impulsive characters. Celeste Ng’s second novel has been named to many “best book” lists, and understandably so. The novel opens with a burning house. The rest of the story explores who may have done it, and why. The storytelling is exquisite, an omniscient labyrinth of many surprising turns and reckless motivations. I absolutely loved this book, and was riveted to discover each character's next move.

Much of the dramatic irony builds from tensions between truth and appearances. New in town, Mia seems to be a quirky single mom, living from menial, minimum-wage jobs and thrift store gleanings. Actually, she’s an established artist with a top NYC gallery behind her. The novel is filled with fabulous details about Mia’s photographic/artistic process and explores the theme of “the artist as a young woman” and how rebellion often fuels art. Art figures prominently when a photo in a museum exhibit ignites a major plot twist. Making art as a way to save one's life, or at least one's soul, is a clear ambition for several characters.

Mia has raised her daughter, Pearl, on the go. The year Pearl turns 15, Mia promises that they’ll settle for awhile in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Shaker Heights was a planned community, founded in 1912. Founders believed that even social harmony could be planned. In fact, overachievers of all racial and religious backgrounds seem to be welcomed there, but not necessarily a penniless waitress from China. The normally quiet town erupts in controversy when a wealthy white family tries to adopt an abandoned Chinese baby girl, and the mother fights to claim her child back.

Celeste Ng grew up in Shaker Heights and the details of place are brilliant. Even for someone who has never been to Ohio, the setting resonates a universal suburban malaise, simmering with affluence and angst and secrets and yearning. By 1997, when the main story takes place, the town is fraying at the edges. High School and adolescence are rendered as dangerous (yet this was before the tragedies of Columbine or other school shootings). Teens go to the wrong parties, drink too much, fall pregnant, or steal. Students also stand up against a mean teacher who slings a racial slur. Some try to help their friends through tough times. Others are mean.

Teens figure as main characters in the novel. New-girl Pearl, 15, befriends the Richardson kids: Moody, Izzy, Lexie, and Trip. Each reflects suburban varieties of 1990's innocence; they're coming of age in a seemingly perfect community. Moody is an easy-going, thoughtful person, in love with Pearl. Izzy, a misunderstood rebel, is blamed for all wrongs and finds creative outlets in music, poetry, and eventually as Mia’s art apprentice. Lexie is a high-achiever headed early-decision to Yale whose black boyfriend, Brian, is destined for Princeton. Trip is a popular jock. Characters' challenges are mostly emotional, because the Richardson family (like most families there) is affluent. Mr. Richardson is an established attorney and Mrs. Richardson is a small-town journalist with a destructive habit of meddling.

Trigger warnings for some sensitive issues: adoption, abortion, race, absent fathers.

There are many ways to burn: “literally” as Lexie would say, and also emotionally. This book drops readers into the smoke of the American Dream. A utopia still has flaws. Characters are free take to the road and chase new dreams. Anger can be creative or destructive. Women have complicated choices about motherhood. Highly recommended for book groups and for fans of literary domestic dramas like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth or Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club.

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Karen Lewis