Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A Book Review

NOTE: I thank Penguin Random House Canada for the reviewer’s copy of the book, and Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here.

Little Fires Everywhere

Chinese American writer Celeste Ng (伍綺詩) had garnered numerous accolades for her debut novel “Everything I Never Told You”, including a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, just to name a few.

Like the stunning opening in her debut work, Ng in her second novel “Little Fires Everywhere”, begins with a dramatic scene: Mrs. Richardson, after being awaken by the smoke detectors, stands on her front lawn in her pale blue robe and watches firemen saving her house from total burnt down. The prime suspect of the fire is her youngest daughter Izzy. With that, Ng leads us into the story of the Richardsons’, an upper-middle class family living in the quiet suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, which was Ng’s hometown during the 90’s.

Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, her scientist parents having immigrated from Hong Kong. Ng graduated from Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award.

The thematic elements of race, parenthood, and family secrets leading to devastating consequences as in her debut novel are carried over. Covering a larger scope, “Little Fires Everywhere” expands to other issues as well, offering us views into a myriad of realistic characters and the interplay of two families, specifically, two mothers holding opposite values. Ng’s riveting storytelling skills carry us through the various plot lines breezily, while taking the time to breathe life into her characters, and deftly locks us into mental debates on contentious issues. Although set in the 90’s, the issues raised are as relevant today.

The Richardson family, one could say, is the epitome of the American Dream. They live in a six- bedroom home in a desirable part of town. The matriarch Elena and her husband Bill are well connected and respectable in the community, she a journalist with the local paper the Sun Press and he a defence lawyer. They have four teenaged children, the eldest Lexie heading to Yale. Second son Trip is popular in school, especially among girls. Third child Moody is wrapped up in his own cocoon. Youngest Izzy is the black sheep of the family. She is not happy despite her family’s affluence, or maybe, if Mrs. Richardson is willing to look deeper into her daughter’s mind, Izzy’s discontent could be exactly due to her family’s secure standing in the rule-constraining suburb. Mrs. Richardson would not trade any of her privileges, for she is living “a perfect life in a perfect place.” Her main task now is to smother any sparks that can disrupt the status quo and surface calmness in her family and community.

Celeste Ng.jpg

As the title suggests, metaphors of fire are everywhere. There are flames of passion, fury, dissatisfactions, and the fuse of suburban ennui, as apparent in the lives of the teenagers, potential fire hazards. These are all inherent threats to the idyllic, quiet town, where high school graduates are expected to head to Ivy league colleges, and where parents are oblivious to the secret lives of their teenagers, and vice versa.

The story begins not with the aftermath of the house fire, but the reason leading to it. Mrs. Richardson has just rented the upper floor of her revenue property, a duplex on the other side of town, to new tenants, single mother Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl. Mia is an artist, her medium, photography. She works at menial jobs to sustain her art, and brings up Pearl moving about the country in their VW Rabbit, forty-six different towns since Pearl’s birth.

As they settle in Shaker Heights, Pearl comes to know the Richardson children and is attracted to their lifestyle. Conversely, Izzy Richardson is mesmerized by Mia’s artist life and hangs around in the duplex to help and learn from her art-making. This time, Mia and Pearl may just be settling down.

It is obvious from the start that Mrs. Richardson and Mia comes from opposing sides of ideals. While suggesting Mia take portraits for people in town to earn more money, thinking about her rents no doubt, Mrs. Richardson is confronted with the notion of the artist as a photographer, as Mia replies, “the thing about portraits is, you need to show people the way they want to be seen. And I prefer to show people as I see them.”

Mia works at the Chinese restaurant Lucky Palace to sustain a living. Mrs. Richardson offers her to work in the Richardsons’ home, cleaning and cooking a few days a week to earn some extra money. Although reluctant about the proposal but to not jeopardize their relationship, Mia agrees. Hence, Mia delves further into the Richardson family life.

As she so deftly deals with in her first novel, Ng weaves into her storylines and characters the subjects of culture and identity. The intermingling of lives between the Richardson family and Mia soon pits them into taking two contentious sides in a prominent court case in town. The Richardsons’ best friends, the McCulloughs, have just adopted a Chinese baby found abandoned at the fire hall, Mirabelle, or May Ling Chow, her birth name. The birth mother Bebe now regrets her decision which she had made in a most dire financial situation at the time. Bebe comes from China, and happens to be Mia’s co-worker at Lucky Palace. Mia is openly supportive of Bebe, while Mr. Richardson represents the McCulloughs. The case has divided the town, and now Mrs. Richardson knows she needs to dig into Mia’s past to discredit Mia and to get back at her for drawing her dear friends the McCulloughs into tormenting legal entanglements.

It is when Ng reveals Mia’s backstory that the narrative is most riveting. We are led to a moving account, a page turner even, on a subject that is complex and crucial: what makes a mother? In her novel, Ng intertwines three possible scenarios of pregnancy, wanted, unwanted, surrogate. And with these contrasting lines, she delves into the issues of adoption and identity. Are babies best brought up by their own biological mothers, especially when culture comes into play? What makes a baby Chinese? American? Or more complex still, Chinese American? The McCulloughs have well intentions to bring Mirabelle up by regular dine-outs in a Chinese restaurant, and finding her ‘Oriental Barbies’ to play with. Are these enough? If not, what is?

Cultural appropriation is a trendy topic nowadays, not only in the adoption circle, but in other realms. These are issues that require deeper pondering and research work, no doubt, ones that should be confronted deeper than Ng can deal with in her novel. Nonetheless, a fictional setting is an interesting place to spark off the debate. Just another one of her little fires in the book.

While “Everything I Never Told You” is a microscopic look at a mixed-race family during the 70’s, dense and intense, not unlike a Bergman chamber work, “Little Fires Everywhere” is looser and more expansive in thematic matters, with sprinkles of laughs here and there, not unlike a John Hughes’ movie in the 80’s. One can feel Ng is freer to roam with the larger, open space. Just as with her debut work, Ng does not shy away from the issues of race and identity, while challenging the notion of ‘success’. One should not be surprised that this is still the fundamental term we are struggling to define in our society today.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

***

 

Here’s a short review of Ng’s debut novel “Everything I Never Told You” (audiobook) I’d posted on Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

20 thoughts on “Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A Book Review”

  1. What a fascinating review of a book I would like to read. This line of yours especially caught me: “Her main task now is to smother any sparks that can disrupt the status quo and surface calmness in her family and community.” I think that desire to not disrupt any surface calmness is an issue which effects so many people today. It is more glamorous to wear a facade than reveal any hidden truths which may appear undesirable. I caution myself daily not to present any false illusions.

    All that said, I’m most intrigued by this book.

    Like

    1. Bellezza,

      Thanks for your two pebbles in the Pond. Yes, you’ve picked the key point… but then, there are more. There are other issues Ng deals with, well embedded in the storylines. Have you read her first novel, Everything I Never Told You? I think you’ll enjoy that one too. Always a pleasure to have you stop by, my friend. 🙂

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  2. It has been quite a while since I have had the time to get into a good novel. I always enjoy your reviews. I’m too burnt out these days to put into words what I think looks most interesting about this to me, but thanks for putting out there what looks like a great novel for ‘recovery’ reading time!

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    1. Michelle,

      Yes, this could be a good one for rejuvenation. It’s not altogether cheerful, albeit Ng’s style is kind of light and amusing, as opposed to her debut one. Depends on your mood and situation I guess. Hope you’ll ‘recover’ soon. BTW, I was in NYC in Sept. and my last post there are some of the works I saw at the MoMA. You might want to take a look at those. 🙂

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  3. I finished this one last night and my review posts tomorrow but my review doesn’t include all the lovely details yours does. I loved the book. Oddly, I am so in tune to the 80s but I never felt like it was similar to the 80s movies of the past. I thought the book quite sad but hopeful at the same time. I loved how all the pieces came together and how Mia’s story unfolded. Mrs. Richardson wasn’t picked apart as much as some of the other characters but I felt like that was intentional. She was so buttoned up most of the time.

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    1. Ti,

      You know, as I read the first part I felt I was looking at a literary version of The Breakfast Club or Pretty In Pink. 🙂 Don’t you find Ng’s characterization vivid, and she takes time to let us know the characters. She’s good in doing that. No character is unnecessary. Have you read Ng’s debut novel? I’d like to see what you think of it.

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  4. This fascinates me, Arti. As you probably know, apart from mysteries, my tolerance for fiction is limited, but being so familiar with Shaker Heights through my family, I am interested in this one. I can easily see the disparity between the two families just based on knowing the locale and imagining how odd it would be for a photographer who appreciated honest portraits to live in that environment which can at times me more show, less go. It sounds as though it is beautifully written and well conceived. It may have to go on the list.

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    1. Jeanie,

      If you like mysteries, maybe you should start with Ng’s first novel, a little shorter, denser, and I’d say with a Hitchcockian streak. Some say it’s a ‘literary thriller’. It starts off with this sentence: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” She had me at hello.

      And with this second novel, Ng focuses on Shaker Heights, which you mentioned you are familiar with. She grew up there from age 10 to finishing high school. Another connection you might find is that Ng got her MFA from the U of Michigan’s writers program. You might know some people there?

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  5. Oh, this sounds like an engaging read — thank you for your review, Arti. I enjoy good characterization and appreciate the plot points you’ve described. Because my commute is so short now, I don’t get through as many audiobooks as I used to and stumble across books I’d bought with no memory as to their plots or premises. But Celeste Ng’s first book is at my library’s “Big Read” and I’ve just flagged it for my next listen.

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    1. nikkipolani,

      You’d enjoy Ng’s first book in audio form. I listened to it first, and was really impressed by both her writing, subject matter, and the narrator’s voice. After that, and just recently before delving into her second one, I reread the first in hardcopy. Like them both.

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  6. I’m slightly stuck with Little Fires, as I find the characterisation (rich kids, rebel kid) a bit stereotypical, however I’m told by other bloggers to stick with it, as it gets more complex. I found Everything I Never… more immediate, with its insights on race.

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    1. Denise,

      I like her first book more with its intense storytelling and engaging disclosure. This one I see she’s changed to a more relaxed style, but relevant issues to cover though. I miss reading your blog posts! Hope you will resume blogging in the coming year. I found I don’t have the time and mood for blogging sometimes, but then hey, nobody is checking and I’m not meeting any deadlines so I figure maybe slow blogging is best. Like, once a month, or whenever I feel like it. That works for me. 🙂 Have a Happy New Year, Denise, and all the best in 2018 to you and yours!

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  7. I remember all those things you mention in the book, but I left with a different feel about it. There was some forced hand, a manipulation of the reader. I didn’t like to be that directed to love Mia and despise Mrs. Richardson. I felt the author behind Mia, and that bothered me. While it doesn’t bother me in the least to read books in which characters are biased, people are nuanced, and I have almost no toleration for stacking all the bad traits on one person, while dotting another with all that’s honest, genuine, misunderstood, etc.

    I still think it was fair to read this book because of all the popularity. Now that it’s going to be made into a movie… I don’t know. There’s some flippancy in postmodern consumerist books and movies that saddens me. Where’s the depth, the honest portrayal of the still prevalent christian people who hold the name not as varnish but a true worldview? Not everyone still holding to christian values is a shallow hypocrite, and those of the new age honest and genuine moral people.

    Sorry for the rant. I don’t know what got me this aggravated about the book.

    Like

    1. I see what you mean. You feel the author is manipulative in getting her readers to side with her, and the dichotomy of both sides too clean-cut and polarized, right and wrong. I appreciate your thoughts. It’s been a while since I last read it and wrote this review, I don’t remember all the details. But I can see your point. Have you read Ng’s first book Everything I Never Told You? I think that one has more depth and I can resonate with the story, myself clinging to a hybrid identity, a hyphenated citizen: Chinese Canadian.

      As to the ‘postmodern consumerist books and movies’, I agree with you that sometimes authors and filmmakers are too too keen to please the trending views. And if you’re familiar with my blog and have followed and read my past posts all these years you’ll find me totally agreeing with your statement: “Where’s the depth, the honest portrayal of the still prevalent christian people who hold the name not as varnish but a true worldview? Not everyone still holding to christian values is a shallow hypocrite”. The raison d’être for Ripple Effects is to prove this statement true.

      Thanks for your two pebbles into the Pond here! 🙂

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      1. Arti, in the little I have read about your blog, I knew that about you. You found me and said how you had read Shaeffer in college.

        I’d be sad if you think I judge you by that particular review, hahaha, it was a rant that came out of frustration.

        I didn’t know that important existencial piece of information, and I must say that there were brilliant pieces in the book, those dealing with adoption, cultural appropriation. I am glad for these comments and I will take you up on the recommendation.

        I may be holding you to a cliche, but maybe the subtle but strong aesthetic and philosophy of your blog, the ripple effect, the pursuit of calm and quiet, could that come from your Chinese being? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe I am applying this retroactively, because of what you have informed me of, 🙂

        In any case, know that I appreciate and praise what you are doing in terms of contributing to christian culture and worldview.

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        1. Silvia,

          I’m afraid the search for serenity and calmness isn’t from my Chinese root. Haha. As I’d come to Canada as a teenager, from the then British colony of Hong Kong, even my root is a fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. So, all these decades living in Canada, beginning with high school and then universities here have all but molded me into a ‘postmodern’ urbanite. (take that!) Anyway, I did find my Christian faith during my college days here in Canada, and have remained so to this date, seeking meaning and vision in a post-Christian world.

          Now, just a little note on Mrs. Richardson. I don’t think Ng intends her to represent the ‘Christian’ side and Mia the ‘non-Christian’ side. But rather, I’d say the status quo, normative hierarchy of the upper middle class (Mrs. R.) vs. those living at the fringe of society (Mia), those not driven to run in the rat race, to pursue materialism, but pursue an idealistic, artistic existence (of course, she’s also running away from her past too, here’s the complexity). Not so much a right and wrong, black and right kind of moral grounds, but a difference in values and priorities in life.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hahaha, that’s funny.

            Oh, yes, I agree with you. I typed too fast and not too well. I meant that Ng, as many modern or postmodern authors, contrast that more idealistic persons like Mia, to the status quo persona, and they ascribe a loable relativistic morality to the marginalized characters, and we, the more mainstream people, are never seen as genuine, as true christians, they have made a pastiche construct against with whom they make these other people shine.

            The sad thing is that I do love to hear the voices of these new authors from what we know as “minorities”. It’s complex, the what used to be grouped as “majority” (christian, suburban, conservative), has now become a minority in its own right. Some are like Mrs. R. But at times I had to say, “really”? Not a single meanness of spirit escapes the poor lady, sigh.

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            1. Just a piece of info for you. Ng’s husband is white, so her son’s of mixed race. I’m afraid things aren’t as clearcut nowadays as who the ‘mainstream’ people are. As a matter of fact, she was attacked by trolls spreading hatred due to her mixed race ID. What can I say, nothing’s simple these days. As my favorite fictional character Atticus says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

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            2. True, so true. That’s sad to hear, that treatment.

              I’m willing to read that other title. And it was good to know that about Ng, it helps.

              That’s a lovely quote from Atticus. I too love him.

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