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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
If I had to use one word to summarize this book, I would use motherhood, motherhood in all of its possible definitions. What does it mean to be a mother? What makes a good mother? Who has the right to decide what is or who is a good mother? Who has the right to decide the timing for motherhood?
The story has several interesting female characters. One, Elena. Richardson, basically unconsciously, picked mercilessly on her last born child, daughter Izzy, because she was afraid she would suffer from health issues as she grew up. She was premature, and the doctor had warned her of possible repercussions in her future. Her overly critical treatment of the child hurt her emotionally. Her other children were self-confident, privileged and a bit irresponsible, assuming everyone lived in the comfortable way that they did. Mrs. Richardson (Elena) can be described as a creature of habit and structure. She expects others she has been kind to, to return the favor. She is a bit of a good-natured busybody. Therefore, one has to wonder if her intent is truly kind. She has been a local reporter for a small neighborhood paper for years and would like a good story to help her break out into real journalism. The Richardson’s live with material excess, what today is called “white privilege”. Is that a fair term of description?.
Mia is unconventional and her mothering is as well. In her youth, struggling to pay for her education in photography, Mia agreed to be a surrogate mother, but, instead, after a change of heart, she ran away and kept the baby, named Pearl. She continued to run for the rest of her life to avoid dealing with what she had done. Her parents rejected her because they believed she was selling her baby. Was that what she was doing? Mia and Pearl subsist on what she earns from selling her work or from odd jobs. They move when the mood strikes Mia and are not attached to material possessions. They live minimally.
Mrs. Riley wanted a surrogate mother to bear a child for her, one that looked like her. She and her husband had the wherewithal to pay someone to have a baby for them. Should that contract be binding legally and subject to criminal charges if broken?
Mrs. McCullough could not conceive a child. She had had several miscarriages. She and her husband desperately wanted a baby. Many attempts at adoption had been unsuccessful, until, one day, they were offered an abandoned child to adopt. What happens if the biological mother shows up and wants that baby back? Who should raise that child? Who is the rightful mother?
Bebe, a Chinese immigrant, is impoverished. She abandoned her baby because she could not afford to care for her when she was abandoned by the father. Her English was poor and she was unable to care for the child properly, although she tried her best. Did she do the right thing? Was it criminal? Did she give up her rights to the child in the future?
Lexi is a teenager who engaged in unprotected sex and decided to have an abortion when she discovered she was pregnant. She was supposed to go to Yale and the baby would have negatively impacted the lives of herself and her boyfriend. She wondered, did she make the right decision? Should she have discussed it with her boyfriend? Did he have the right to know? Did her mother have the right to know? Should she, as the adult and guardian have been consulted? Will Lexi carry that decision with her for the remainder of her life, always wondering if it was right or wrong?
For me, the title holds several meanings. One would pertain to an actual fire, one would pertain to creativity, coming up with a new idea, and one would pertain to the idea of encouragement, to figuratively lighting a fire underneath someone to propel them into action. This book, explores those ideas with regard to motherhood and life, in general, through the experiences of the characters. It also exposes the different ideas that define all types of motherhood. Should class, status, social standing, culture or ethnicity influence any of the choices regarding motherhood, behavior and rights?
The story takes place in the community of Shaker Heights, an affluent community in Cleveland, Ohio. It is essentially a bubble filled with similar people who have similar goals of upward mobility. The Richardson family lives there. Mia and Pearl Warren arrive there looking for a suitable community to settle in with good schools and a safe environment. Mia has decided that Pearl would benefit from a less nomadic life. They rent an apartment from the Richardson’s. They live in a minimalist way while the Richardson’s live with obvious abundance. The Richardson’s and the Warner’s learn about and react to each other’s way of life.
Moody Richardson and Pearl Warren are high school sophomores. They become fast friends as they are the same age and are in many of the same classes in school. Pearl loves her new home and also becomes friends with Lexi Richardson who is a senior. When she meets Trip Richardson, a junior, a romance develops. Izzy, is the youngest Richardson child who has always been singled out as a troublemaker by her mom, and so she has subsequently taken on that persona of a troublemaker. She becomes close to Mia Warren who opens up her mind to being less rebellious. She is kind to her and accepts her as she is, but her advice is often ill thought out. Izzy remains “a loose cannon”.
The ideas of abortion and unwanted pregnancies are examined along with the idea of who is the real or true mother in a custody battle between a parent who abandoned her child and the parent who hopes to adopt the child, the surrogate or the one engaging her. What rights does a surrogate mother have when she signs an agreement to deliver the child to the family? Which idea of parenting is more beneficial to children, the structured or unstructured approach? When an underage female has an abortion, who should decide whether or not it is appropriate, who should counsel her?
Each of the female characters in the book engages in behavior that is not always by the book, ethical or even legal. Yet they all seem to get away with pushing the envelope. The person who behaves least responsibly seems to come out the winner, in the end, although that irresponsible behavior was the catalyst that caused many catastrophes that can not be reversed. I wondered why that has become acceptable behavior. I wondered, also, who was the greater villain of the mothers featured. Was it the busybody Mia, who chose her nomadic life over her daughter’s need for structure, or the busybody Mrs. Richardson? Was it the would-be mother seeking a surrogate or the mother seeking to keep an abandoned child after the biological mother wants her back? Does the mother who abandons her child retain any rights? The meddling of others, the lies told and the secrets kept continue to come back to haunt many of the characters, but they are resilient and seem to find ways to adjust.
One parent taught with compassion and by example, not always good ones, and the other seemed impetuous, rushing to judgment and meting out acts of retribution. The children learned from those parents, imitating their behavior. The Richardson children learned self-confidence, but they also learned to be arrogant and to feel entitled, entitled to what they possessed and to use others to serve their needs. Pearl Warren, on the other hand, learned patience and consideration from her mother. She learned to appreciate and accept what little she had, but was amazed and enthralled by how the Richardson’s lived. Although Pearl’s life of a drifter seemed the more unstable than the structured life of the Richardson’s, was it really less stable or was it actually more enduring and flexible?
The paramount idea of breaking out of one’s “box” and beginning again, seemed to work for all of the characters with minimal repercussions. The book intensely examines motherhood, with regard to surrogacy and biology, the idea of giving up a child, losing a child and the rights to a child is dissected. Family values with regard to class, culture, wealth, poverty, parental influence and legal rights and the bubbles within which we all live are explored. Behavior, often illegal, seems to be encouraged in some ways, and I found that confounding. Did the book bite off more than it could chew? Are there too many social issues introduced? In an attempt to be progressive and open minded has common sense sometimes flown out the window.
What an absolutely perfect title this was, small fires trailing these characters in their actions, words and the things they keep hidden. The way the story progresses, unravels, is brilliant, completely right. The different lifestyles, but always at heart is the question, "Nature vs. nurture, does lifestyle matter if the love is strong?" Unbreakable bonds, forged in many different ways. Sometimes by the time we have full realization of something important, it may be too late.
This novel does something important, it makes one think, might make some open their eyes. Would be an excellent choice for a book group of woman. Much to discuss here.
ARC from publisher.
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.
The female characters are better dimensionalized than the males (who are supporting characters at best). None are perfect, and none are wholly bad, all are written and captured with empathy, heart, and grace. Some I found myself relating to better than others, but all felt real, authentic, and very human.
Highly, highly recommended.
When friends of the Richardsons decide to adopt a Chinese-American baby, the resulting custody battle divides the Richardsons and the Warrens on opposite sides. Elena vows to unearth each and every one of Mia’s secrets. Elena learns the hard way that playing by the rules doesn’t always ensure safety.
This is a very well-written novel and drew me in completely. I really felt a part of this story. Each of the characters were alive in my mind and I cared about them. The author has a wise view of the world and knows how to construct a great story. I found the custody battle to be a very emotional one and couldn’t pull myself away until I found out how it ended. The author expertly builds up the tension in the relationships between the Richardsons and the Warrens. The book is absolutely riveting, the story complex and I loved it. The only reason I couldn’t give it 5 stars was that I felt the reason for Izzy’s act at the end of the book to be unrealistic and her behavior overly dramatic. It just didn’t feel right to me.
This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
In many ways, Little Fires Everywhere has much in common with its predecessor. As with Everything I Never Told You, Ng's latest effort is a heartfelt, intelligently orchestrated story about the lack of understanding and empathy within a family. The novel is peopled with characters who are both beautiful and imperfect. And while I strongly believe that Little Fires Everywhere will be a larger success and a much better received book, I personally do not feel that it surpasses the gorgeously subtle brilliance of Everything....
Little Fires Everywhere succeeds unequivocally by most standards because of its formulaic plot. Naturally, this will also be the reason some readers feel the story to be disingenuous. Every turn of events relies on another that must be orchestrated perfectly. The results are the same again and again, a cascade of well-placed plot points that make the story one-hundred percent exciting, but also difficult to swallow. Yet this plotting is exactly what raises what would otherwise be academic reading to the ranks of a commercial success. Ng is an intelligent author with a strong grasp of language and of the craft, but she will not bore her readers. Those hoping for a more subtle telling will be disappointed by the obvious authorial manipulation, but it is this interference that frames an utterly unforgettable and engaging story where not one word is wasted.
While Everything... convinced me and moved me, Little Fires Everywhere pulled me in completely. It is a story I will not soon forget. Neither will you: I can almost guarantee you'll be hearing much about it in the coming months.
A smart, but often scathing look at entitlement coupled with the endless dynamic layers between mother and child.
The Clinton era gets a sharp examination as we drop in on Shaker Heights, an ideal suburban community with plenty of unspoken rules for its financially comfortable residents. The Richardson family is the prototype of the community, with Elena Richardson embracing the lifestyle with unparalleled enthusiasm.
‘Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shakers had lived it so strongly it had seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up there with a propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws.’
By contrast, Mrs. Richardson’s new tenants, Mia and her daughter, Pearl, live a free spirited, nomadic life. Mia is a photographer, who works just enough to afford the basics in life. Pearl, though, has no trouble adapting to the stable home life of the Richardson’s, practically becoming a member of the family.
Things are working out well enough, until a chain of events unlocks long buried secrets, spawning a bitter custody battle, which exposes cracks in the Richardson’s perfect image, and will culminate in a fiery inferno, both physically and metaphorically.
This second novel by Celeste Ng is not quite as grim or heavy as her debut, but it is every bit as provocative.
I have had a hard time writing this review because the layers in this story are many, with so many themes to explore. I have worked on it for days, feeling slightly intimidated, unable to find the words that would do justice to such an outstanding novel.
This book adeptly explores hot button issues prevalent twenty years ago, between episodes of Jerry Springer and Clinton’s sex scandals, when a different set of questions were raised, such as interracial adoptions.
“It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
I was impressed with the various contrasts presented in the book, which included the mindset of the privileged juxtaposed against those who find themselves at their mercy. Was there an exacting price for that privilege and was it worth it? I must say, the judgmental hypocrisy is astounding!!
But, the heartbeat of the story is centered around motherhood. Every mother represented exposed that instant vulnerability motherhood creates. The pain of infertility and the frustrating process of adoption is examined right along with parental sacrifices and foibles and their consequences.
Mia and Mrs. Richardson's children also play an integral part in the story, their roles intertwined and connected in the most ironic of ways.
‘Izzy had the heart of a radical, but she had the experience of a fourteen-year-old in the suburban Midwest.’
One of the more interesting character studies is of Elena- mostly referred to as Mrs. Richardson, which I thought was a very clever way of hammering home a specific point. Her cluelessness, her arrogance, and relentless reproach is extraordinary in light of what is actually taking place.
Mia, in turn, may spark a little resentfulness in Mrs. Richardson, and despite my initial puzzlement about her, and I admit I certainly questioned some of her choices, I ended up respecting her a great deal.
So, as you can see, the novel is very driven by the characters, each offering a different perspective or new avenue in which to view the situation. Sometimes I felt deep empathy for one character, feeling the acuteness of their pain, but unable to choose a side. It is often heart wrenching and I found myself feeling torn on many occasions.
On other occasions, I had a very hard time mustering up any real empathy for a few of these characters.
The plotting was very tightly woven and on several occasions, I may have uttered an expletive out loud when misunderstandings exploded in the worst possible way, creating a mountain of tension in the process.
This is a very compelling family drama, drawing out a bit of nostalgia, prompting me to take a closer look in the mirror, to put myself in the place of others before passing judgement.
But, I also picked up on a bit of sarcasm here and there, almost as if the author was scoffing at some of the attitudes or the mindset of the era, although it was done so in an understated and sly way.
It’s been nearly a week since I finished the book and I still find myself mulling over the many layers and angles, and thinking about the characters and the choices they made and how it all came together in the end.
So, it is fair to say, this book has had an impact on me, and think it is a novel anyone who appreciates a well written, thought provoking work of fiction will appreciate. Highly recommend!!