From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, the intertwined stories of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the mother and daughter who upend their lives "I read Little Fires Everywhere in a single, breathless sitting. With brilliance and beauty, Celeste Ng dissects a microcosm of American society just when we need to see it beneath the microscope ..."--Jodi Picoult, New York Times -bestselling author of Small Great Things and Leaving Time 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.
There is a somewhat long epigraph at the beginning of the book, but it explains a great deal:
“Actually, though, all things considered, people from Shaker Heights are basically pretty much like people everywhere else in America. They may have three or four cars instead of one or two, and they may two television sets instead of one, and when a Shaker Heights girl gets married she may have a reception for eight hundred, with band flown in from New York, instead of a wedding reception for a hundred with a local band, but these are all differences of degree rather than fundamental differences.” Cosmopolitan, March 1963
This very amusing and ironic passage is reminiscent of the US Magazine feature: “Movie Stars: They’re just like us!” (They go to Starbucks! They shop for groceries! They have babies!)
But in fact, the 1% are not just like us, but it is hard for them to see that fact. When a white male walks into a room full of other white males, he gets no sense what it must be like to enter that same room as a black male, or a female of any color. He generally has a sense of comfort, not of difference or even potential threat. Similarly, the denizens of Shaker Heights have a blindness to privilege and a worldview that bestows an easy confidence on those who have never known what it is like to be free from want or prejudice. As Pearl, a tenant of the family’s, wonders in awe:
“Where did this ease come from? How could they be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in pajamas?”
There is a cost, however, to living like this. There are “rules” in Shaker Heights, both those imposed by the community and those internalized by the inhabitants.
Some of those in this rich milieu feel constraints, even if they don’t lack confidence and the sense of owning the world that being in the upper 1% can confer. One constraint is noblesse oblige, or the idea of a responsibility to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged - that is, as long as it (a) makes the privileged person feel good and (b) doesn’t really inconvenience the privileged person. A second constraint is the one that keeps Elena Richardson, the matriarch of this family, in a metaphorical cage. Elena always feels she must maintain control over appetites and emotions. She monitors what she eats, what she wears, and what she feels: “All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.”
The Richardsons own a rental house in a less prosperous part of Shaker Heights, one of a long line of duplexes. When Elena Richardson meets her new tenants, Mia Warren, 36 and her daughter Pearl, 15, she is both fascinated and envious. Mia is an artist, and works at menial, odd jobs only just enough to allow her to buy supplies and time to dedicate to her photography. Mia doesn’t care if they don’t have a lot of possessions or amenities, and worst of all to Elena, seems happy in spite of it. Elena thinks about Mia: “You can’t just do what you want… Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?"
Indeed, Mia is the opposite of Elena in many ways. Elena grew up in Shaker Heights, and always wanted to return:
“She had had a plan, from girlhood on, and had followed it scrupulously: high school, college, boyfriend, marriage, job, mortgage, children. … She had, in short, done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted."
Although, not "everyone" as it turns out: it was not the kind of life Mia wants, and her very existence challenges everything Elena has been brought up to value.
But Pearl is not like Mia either. She wants some stability for a change, and with the Richardson kids, she finds friendship and first love. She spends more and more time at the Richardson’s. She is friends with both 15-year-old Moody and 18-year-old Lexie, and has a crush on 17-year-old Trip. In addition, she basks in the differences she observes between her off-beat existence and the Richardson’s predictable, comfortable, and easy life of affluence.
Meanwhile, fourteen-year-old Izzy, Elena’s youngest daughter, finds a mother in Mia she never had at home. Izzy and her mother have a destructive relationship, originating before Izzy was even born. The pregnancy was not risk-free, nor was Izzy out of danger after birth. Elena saw Izzy, who never - even before birth, followed the pattern Elena expected, as consistently causing trouble for her. The three older kids knew their mother always seemed to have it in for Izzy, but the reasons were unclear to them. After a while, there was an unbreakable dynamic, with Elena criticizing and Izzy reacting:
“Of course, the more Izzy pushed, the more anger stepped in to shield her mother’s old anxiety, like a shell covering a snail. ‘My god, Izzy,’ Mrs. Richardson said, over and over again, ‘what is wrong with you?’”
Elena is consistently nasty to Izzy. Mia, on the other hand, is welcoming and nurturing.
So a main theme of the book is: what makes someone a mother? What is best for a child? A biological mother, or someone who can give the child what he or she needs? The links between Pearl and the Richardsons, and between Izzy and Mia, are mirrored in the main source of gossip and upheaval in Shaker Heights, involving the McCullough family.
Linda McCullough (a friend of Elena’s), and her husband Mark, couldn’t have children. They had been trying to adopt, and got a call from the fire station that an Asian baby, “May Ling,” was left there. Linda went all out to welcome the newly renamed “Mirabelle McCullough.” All is going well for Linda until Mia figures out that the baby was left by one of her restaurant co-workers, Bebe Chow. Bebe was desperate to get her baby back, and Mia tells Bebe where May Ling is. Before long, a custody battle ensues. The whole neighborhood gets involved in a discussion over which woman would be the best mother for the baby.
Part of the issue is the cultural heritage of the baby. When Bebe’s lawyer questions Linda about how she will teach the child about Chinese culture, Linda, with perfect cluelessness and convinced in any event of the superiority of her own culture, says she will take Mirabelle to Chinese restaurants.
Elena, also incognizant about the racism that informs her opinions, is adamant that the wealthy white families of Shaker Heights offer advantages the Asian biological mother could not: “Honestly, I think this is a tremendous thing for Mirabelle. She’ll be raised in a home that truly doesn’t see race. That doesn’t care, not one infinitesimal bit, what she looks like. What could be better than that?”
As the case drags on without the expected easy resolution in favor of the McCulloughs, Elena becomes increasingly angry at Mia and obsessively determined to exact revenge on her friend’s behalf. But actually, there is more to it:
“She would never admit even to herself that it hadn’t been about the baby at all: it had been some complicated thing about Mia herself, the dark discomfort this woman stirred up that Mrs. Richardson would have much preferred to have kept in its box.”
Elena uses her skills and contacts as a reporter for the local paper to dig up dirt on Mia, and before long, her vendetta both creates and reveals “little fires everywhere.” Together, the "fires" combine to burn down the Richardson house, both in fact and in metaphor.
Discussion: Although this is an excellent book, I had trouble sticking with it only because I loathed Elena Richardson so thoroughly. But that was certainly by the author's design. And while I never had any sympathy for Elena, the author does an excellent job shading most of the other characters - especially the kids, with both good and bad overtones.
The story raises many questions that will engage readers. Motherhood and family are treated as concepts as well as biological accidents, and that treatment suggests that with whom we should share our lives with is more nuanced than just a question of birth. The conventions of social conformity and the blind spots of privilege are also interrogated in this story. The role of preconceptions in structuring our understanding of “truth” - especially relevant in these times - also plays a role. Finally, the almost Shakespearean treatment of envy as a motivator and destroyer of lives runs through the story like, well, an accelerant in a fire.
Evaluation: This is an absorbing story with so many layers and questions that it would be an outstanding choice for bookclubs.
Throughout the book the author challenges the reader to explore many differing points of view and, although initially it appears that many of her characters are stereotypical, as the story progresses each of them becomes much more nuanced, especially Elena as she is gradually forced to examine so many of her apparently ingrained beliefs about how she, and others, should behave. I think that Ng’s depictions of the conflicts faced by adolescents, as well as the power of their relationships, was excellent – I found myself alternating between feeling sympathetic towards and irritated by their behaviour!
This story starts with a real fire but the back-story explores all the metaphorical “little fires” which led up to the major conflagration, demonstrating that fire, like passion, can be a dangerous and destructive thing! I think that Celeste Ng managed to integrate all these strands in an entertaining and reasonably credible way. However, there were moments when I felt that the issues surrounding the custody battle detracted from her development of her characters, they seemed to become mere “vehicles” for the conflicting arguments. I thought this was a shame because she is clearly someone who is able to capture the essence of people’s characters, behaviour and motivations and the dynamics of developing relationships. However, overall I did enjoy this thought-provoking story and think that the issues it raises would make it a good choice for reading groups.
For the first third of the novel, I was mainly thinking how well it was written, but after that the plot started to drive me crazy and by the end I had had more than enough.
I think we were expected to see Mia as all wise and as a positive force for change/alternative and thoughtful living in the Richardson children's lives. However, her suggestion that Izzy should seek revenge on the racist bullying band teacher by playing a prank was odd and a missed opportunity for Izzy to learn to stand up for others in a mature and accountable way. In the event the teacher is humiliated, but only by means of a chain of unlikely coincidences.
I found it hard to place this novel in its time period - the mid-nineties? Everything was a bit nebulous and timeless. I was also occasionally bothered by repetition of things we had been told before and then I got caught up on detail issues:
Was surrogacy even legal at the time Mia was pregnant? How did Mia manage to give birth under a false name? How did Lexie manage to have an abortion under a false name - didn't she need insurance or any form of ID?
I struggled with Mia's character in general; she decides to help the Ryans for money, defends herself to her parents and then it is as if a switch is flicked - she changes what she is going to do 100% and runs off in her brother's car. No agonizing, no debate. Her encouragement of Bebe resulted in heartbreak all around. I felt very distanced from her as a character. Mrs Richardson was also a bit of an enigma - was she like Izzy, determined to stand up for what she believed or a heartless conniving snob? (I vote the latter). Mr Richardson didn't really exist as a character he was so thinly drawn.
The ending was boring (the photos for each family member) and sentimental.
But today, I've gotten to a point where I'm so enraged at two characters that I don't think I can go on. Can't elaborate without spoilers, but basically one character has allowed another to construct an inescapably damning scenario that will end tragically. (And if it doesn't, I won't believe it.) Maybe my inability to go on is a weird testament to the book's successful portrayal of strangle-hold suburban propriety? I don't know--I'll leave that to other readers to decide. I'm glad I picked this book up, but need to put it down now.
I think maybe the book had too many characters and events. There are probably a few interesting book ideas here. Things somewhat tied together at the end, but not enough to warrant the many threads.
If you've watched the movie Losing Isaiah...that's one of the plots in this book. Yes, this one does more than just white privileged adopters vs minority trying to correct a mistake storyline, but I felt that it stopped from going too deep into looking at the themes that would have made it literary. It stays in the pop fiction realm. It's suitable for 16-20 years olds who are cutting their teeth on books with actual substance, but I was rather bored most of the time. Interesting slight of hand with the shifts in narrative POV, but there are too many POVs and too many characters, so they're not all given the time the characters need to really evolve. The kids are typical kids (I would have liked to see Moody get more narrative time); the privileged white mom drove me crazy with her self-righteousness; the artsy nomad mom is also rather cliche, as they all seem to be. Yes, the author gives them some depth, but doesn't take it far enough.
I can see why it's popular, but it's not enough for me.
This seems to be the general consensus from our group with Ng’s latest novel. There really was so much going on here … but in the end, goes nowhere. A classic story of two families from polar opposite ends of society fall in together with the likely hood of, if not riveting at least interesting, outcomes becomes embroiled in a conglomeration of issues and back stories that would put any long running soap opera to shame!
That is not to say the book was not enjoyed by our group. We had a few that loved the working of relationships, particularly mothers and daughters, and also the photography/art aspects of Mia, and there were those who found some empathy with Izzie and Moody. But overall it was stated that the characters lacked the depth to create an emotional involvement and the many teenagers and their day to day argy-bargy with adults and each other was just a little too much to take.
To drive the story on a simpler and more direct path, say, concentrating on just surrogacy or inter-racial adoption, or even on teen parenting, the book may have had a clearer and more thorough direction.
In reality, to cover too many topics in the one novel, does that not rob the author of material for yet another? Just a thought …
Lexie is one of the pretty girls who rule the social scene until the scene owns her and in her thoughtless pretty girl way she sacrifices someone else without blinking;
Trip is that good looking jock who never settles on any one girl until Pearl Warren enters his life;
Moody is quiet, thoughtful, and kind until he is hurt so badly that he can’t help lashing out and destruction is the result;
Izzy with a true moral compass is the child her mother is afraid she will lose and yet Mrs. Richardson does everything to assure that is the end result.
On the other side of the story is Mia is the artistically gifted photographer who never sticks in any one place too long. She travels light in her old VW Rabbit with few personal possessions, her daughter Pearl, and the secrets of her youth.
Pearl is everyone’s foil in the story. She is bewitched by the Richardson’s, loves her mother unconditionally and is about to grow up quickly.
“What happens when a kid learns to lie - when they hold the knowledge inside like a splinter, being careful not to touch it”?
This book carefully lay out what happens when petty minded people rely on unverified information to destroy other people’s lives. Once again Ms. Ng has written a compelling story with characters that are highly identifiable. Once again, I admired her writing (4 stars) and disliked the story (3 stars).
Ng manages to stay out of soap-opera territory, mostly by her ability to look at family dynamics and to insist that her characters at least acknowledge (if not fully accept) the consequences of their actions.
The disputed-baby thread comes closest to cliche, as the bereft birth mother is painted as utterly blameless and totally incapable of navigating the world in which she finds herself, yet the reader is encouraged to root for her to regain custody.
For all that, 'Little Fires Everywhere' is an engaging read.
There are several plot lines: teenage sex, abortion, surrogate babies, child custody battles, class distinctions. None of the characters seemed particularly believable; all were either good or bad or naive or scheming. Sort of a beach read attempting to deal with heavy topics.
Mia and Pearl have lived a nomadic life in support of Mia’s work creating artistic photographs. Their possessions are few; this is the first time Pearl has had her own bedroom. The Richardson’s son Moody is first to connect with Pearl, and the two become inseparable. Soon Pearl is spending her after-school time at the Richardson house, basking in their affluent surroundings and developing bonds with all four children.
When an abandoned baby is taken in by friends of the Richardsons, the community becomes divided over a custody battle. The Richardsons, Mia, and Warren are divided as well, and each person has reasons -- both public and private -- for their point of view. Elena Richardson, the meddling matriarch and landlady, begins to uncover Mia’s past and promptly adds two and two together to get five. And then we understand who started the fire, and why.
This novel was a real page-turner. The characters were very human, each likeable and unlikeable in equal measure. I found the storyline, with its complex interconnected threads, especially well done. Seemingly innocuous details would turn out to be crucial plot elements, eliciting a satisfying “aha!” every time. Days later, I’m still thinking about the characters and wondering, what happened after the fire?
Little Fires Everywhere is a lot like Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, in that it begins at the end and then fills in what happened to get us to that point with veering even further back into various characters’ pasts at times. It opens with Mrs. Richardson standing on her front lawn, watching her house burn down. Then we go back to when Mia and her daughter Pearl first move into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia is an artist, a free spirit, which is unnerving to Mrs. Richardson’s black and white, by the book outlook on the world from the get go. When Mia takes her friend’s side over Mrs. Richardson’s friend’s side in a custody battle over the attempted adoption of a Chinese-American baby, Mrs. Richardson finds that it is the perfect excuse to dig into Mia’s mysterious past. But unbeknownst to her, those in her own family are harboring secrets as well.
Just like in Ng’s first book, the characters in Little Fires Everywhere are well-developed. She delves into their pasts, giving a clear picture for their motivations and letting the readers in on the secrets they hide from one another. Just like in Everything I Never Told You, I wanted to shout at them to just open up and tell the truth – most of their problems could have been dealt with so much easier. But this is not an easy book. Nothing is black and white and I never really quite knew whose side I was on. One of the great things about Ng’s style is that she presents the story in such a balanced way that readers have room to think and feel. She doesn’t manipulate your emotions. For that reason, this would be an excellent book club selection. I could see a discussion about it becoming quite heated!
I looked back to my review of Everything I Never Told You and in it I note that Ng’s prose is beautiful but that she is a little overzealous in her use of metaphor. I didn’t find this to be a problem in Little Fires Everywhere. I loved both books but I think I love this one a little more. There is no sophomore slump going on here! This book is on just about every best of 2017 list there is and rightly so. It’s definitely on mine.
This book is from the library so I am giving myself a pass on writing a real review. But know that this book was beautifully written...it had well defined interesting characters and I loved it.
Pearl and Mia soon develop friendships with the children of the Richardson family and become entangled in their lives. Pearl has never really had friends before because they have moved so much. Pearl becomes quick best friends with Moody. They are both two lonely, naive teenagers with sensitive personalities and bookish wisdom. Pearl is timid, quiet and unsure of herself. Moody is a sweet guy, a romantic at heart. Moody finds that Pearl is another poetic soul like him and he quickly becomes fascinated with her and her mother.
Pearl begins spending all her time at the Richardson’s home and is dazzled by their domestic perfection and confidence. There is Lexie, with her golden smile, easy laugh and warmness. There is Tripp, with his handsome looks and charm. And then there is Izzy, who cares what no one thinks and often does crazy things. Izzy and her mother have a troubled relationship. Her mother is always harder on Izzy, always criticizing her behavior, always less patient with her mistakes and shortcomings, always demanding more from her than her siblings. Izzy soon recognizes a kindred spirit in Mia. She hangs on to her every word, and seeks and trusts her opinion on everything. She becomes Mia’s assistant and starts pretending that Mia is her mother. Mia sees Izzy as a younger version of herself.
There is a side story to the dynamic relationships between these two families. A custody battle between Mia’s friend and Mrs. Richardson’s friend causes a lot of conflict between the two women who already don’t really like each other. Mrs. Richardson is a reporter and she begins digging into Mia’s past and we learn all about her buried secrets. “It was so easy, she thought with some disdain, to find out about people. It was all out there, everything about them. You just had to look. You could figure out anything about a person if you just tried hard enough.”
The book explores what makes someone a mother, is it biology or is it love? The ferocious pull of motherhood and its complexities is a huge issue throughout this novel.
At the end of the book, the Richardson home has been burned to the ground and the fireman says there were actually “little fires everywhere,” just like there were little fires everywhere within these characters. Some fires were put out, some exploded and some burnt to the ground. “Like after a prairie fire...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.” Lovely book y’all. Just lovely.