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.








October’s Abundant Harvest

October is harvesting month for me. The first week I was still cruising on some small country roads in Northeast U.S. gathering visual delights. As soon as I came back home, I sent off a travel article to an online newspaper. Visitors to my pond at Ripple Effects get the details in ten blog posts beginning here.

Funny thing is, In my almost two weeks’ road trip, I’d rarely seen birds and have not watched one single movie. So as soon as I got back home, I quickly sought to quench the dry spell. Sad to say, my avian friends have migrated without saying goodbye. But there are always movies.

Here are the movies I’ve watched in October after coming home. Most are current releases, a few catch-ups. I’m a detailed list-maker of unnecessary facts, so the titles are in chronological order of my viewing:

The Intern with Robert De Niro as the overqualified senior (in age) intern

A new genre has evolved in recent years to capture the baby-boomer cinema goers – A Walk In The Woods, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, My Old Lady – just to name a few. The Intern is pleasant enough, with an interesting proposal: make the best use of the resources seniors can offer in a business, here a startup created and operated by Jules (Ann Hathaway). The hipster way of running a company is explicitly, time and again, contrasted with the De Niro old school of management, etiquette and people skills, like Ben Stiller and Adam Driver in While We Were Young. But The Intern lacks a dramatic story arc to hold viewers’ (well, mine at least) interest and attention. I’ve been waiting for a twist somewhere but it never came, and Anders Holm who plays Jules’ husband Matt could well be a miscast.  ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch as the brooding Prince of Denmark

I bought the ticket to this National Theatre Live one-night screening months ago and am excited to report that I was one of 250,000 viewers worldwide to watch it. The date to remember: 10/15/15. It was a record for NTL for one single showing of a broadcast; Shakespeare would be ecstatic. I was squished in the last row corner seat in a full Cineplex auditorium, awestruck by the enthusiasm Benedict Cumberbatch had raised. There were young people in droves streaming into the theatre instead of the usually grey-haired audience at most NTL screenings.

Basically two things I’d like to say about this production at the Barbican in London via NTL’s camera work. First, the sound and lighting need to improve so we don’t have to strain our ears to hear that most famous soliloquy of all time delivered by Benedict Cumberbatch. Second, the performance was a bit uneven. While Cumberbatch had put on an energetic and affective act, and Ciaran Hinds as Claudius was very convincing and appealing even, there were roles that need to be pumped up to match.
~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Martian with Matt Damon as the best botanist on the Planet Mars

Well, science seems to be the saviour bringing Matt Damon back to Earth from Mars but director Ridley Scott knows the underlying secret. An evacuation of his teammates after a dust storm has left astronaut Mark Watney all alone on the Red Planet. To survive, he has to science his way out. Director Ridley Scott knows too well that he is working with flesh and blood, and science without the human touch will best be a fine documentary but won’t capture hearts and can’t triumph at the box office. Thanks to all his teammates in the space capsule coming back for him and all the smart people in NASA and elsewhere calculating to the dot of how this could take place, we get a captivating and entertaining human interest story. Look at the cast, it’s not rocket science that the film has fine materials to build on: Other than Damon, there’s Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean…

A blogging success, Andy Weir first published his story as blog posts, followed by eBook, sold movie rights, movie production, and now the phenom. But what was I most impressed? That the film doesn’t use CGI to imitate the Red Planet but was shot on location in the magnificent Wadi Rum, southern Jordan. Previous films with Mars as setting had used the location as it’s probably one of the most Mars-like places on Earth. I had the experience of getting to about seventy miles north of Wadi Rum in Petra many years ago, beholding the city carved out of the red mountains. It was indeed out of this world.  ~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Update Jan. 14, 2016: 7 Oscar Nominations including Best Picture)

Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks as the reluctant hero

Steven Spielberg knows what audience wants too, and that the formula of the “hero’s journey” works. Not to say this film is formulaic but it is predictable even when I didn’t know anything about our reluctant hero, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who later turned master negotiator. Bridge of Spies is set in the Cold War era, Donovan is asked to do the nasty task of defending an arrested Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). As a result, Donovan has suddenly become public enemy no. 1 together with his defendant. As the real life events begin to take their course, Donovan is pulled into the journey with real gusto. He saves Abel from a certain death sentence, keeping him for more useful ends, you know, some sort of like insurance for the future. And rainy days finally come.

This is a highly watchable film, despite the fact that many might have known about this part of American history, the character Donovan and his ultimate endeavour to exchange Abel for American U2 pilot Gary Powers shot down from Soviet airspace. As with Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Spielberg knows it’s not the dry, actual negotiations that will interest the audience, but the added suspense and the human bond between Donovan and Abel that would appeal more. And so he threw in those elements; Spielberg is good at that. It’s the humanity behind his characters that capture his audience. And what’s more, shot like a Cold War era film, we get some thrilling noir type of camera work and the reminiscence of the denser and tenser spy films of the 60’s, like Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But of course, in this day, audience would welcome more Spielberg’s offer of lighter entertainment. ~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
(Update Jan. 14, 2016: 6 Oscar Nominations including Best Picture)

Jafar Panahi’s TAXI where the banned Iranian director creates video selfies 

Banned from making films for twenty years for his outspoken stance against the government, Iranian director Jafar Panaji uses creative and bold ways to make his ‘non-films’. Here he is in the driver’s seat in a yellow cab, picking up his fares on the streets of Tehran with a camera mounted on his dashboard. We get a slice of what it’s like to live under an authoritarian power. Rather than a gloomy view, this 2015 Berlin International Film Festival winner brings us a light-hearted, human display of life in Tehran, however limited the crack is opened for us to look in from the outside. My full review here.  ~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

This is Not A Film where banned director searches for new ways to speak out

This is Jafar Panahi’s 2011 work after he was given a 20-year ban by the Iranian court from filmmaking, screenwriting, giving interviews, and leaving the country. This is not a film, but a video selfie made in his home by friend and documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb who was later arrested. We see a somber, stoic, but at times frustrated Panahi up and about in his home with his daily chores, and ‘telling’ a banned screenplay. He is also shown using his own iPhone to record a young man coming to his door to collect garbage, a film student helping his sister out for that night. The depth of human interest and the desires and aspirations of people in constraints depicted in this ‘non-film’ is poignant.  ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Remember where Christopher Plummer is a 90 year-old revenger with dementia

So what if the plot is implausible as long as we have a talented director (Atom Egoyan) conducting a fine orchestrated production with the riveting performance of Christopher Plummer. I mean, there are lots of implausible storylines in our movies nowadays, think Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep, ok, throw in The Martian even. The charismatic performance here in Remember by Plummer makes it believable and absorbing. Why, he has grasped and portrayed a dementia patient to the dot, forgetting who you are, where you are, and the essential why for your actions. A Holocaust survivor seeking revenge on the German officer responsible for his family’s death in Auschwitz is the premise. But Canadian director Atom Egoyan had led us into a thrilling story of suspense and unfolding. No, this is not ‘another Holocaust movie’ but a riveting thriller. Plummer has effectively led us to see the fragility of our mind and the nature of the memories we hold.  ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Meet The Patels where Ravi Patel shows us the Indian version of Meet the Parents

But with one major difference: This is a lively documentary. That makes it all the more fun and realistic. The Indian parents of their American born, and almost 30 year-old son Ravi Patel lend a helping hand to find him a wife by distributing his ‘bio dates’ resumé to friends and family and practically to the whole Patel clan. This is not incest but expanding the target market of about 50 miles radius of where the Patels come from in India. Ravi himself had gone through the ‘biodating system’, online matrimonial websites, and Patel Matrimonial Convention. But before all these, he’d had an American girlfriend whom he had kept as a secret from his parents and with whom he had just broken up. Ahh, that adds to the complication in this vividly told multi-visual doc.  Most gratifying is the conclusion… regardless of culture and traditions, loving parents just want their children to be happy. I can’t agree more.   ~ ~ ~ Ripples  My full review here.

The Past where Director Asghar Farhadi elicited some amazing performance

My third film from Iranian directors in just two weeks. Asghar Farhadi’s first French language film shot in Paris. I was much impressed by his previous work A Separation, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. The Past came a year later. So this is a catch-up for me; I’d long wanted to see it. Saw it on BluRay just a few days ago and again I must say, don’t let them just stream movies online, for the special features are just as good. Here we have Farhadi sharing with us the creative process in the making of The Past at a Directors Guild interview. This is too good a film to just write a couple of paragraphs on. A full review coming. But I can tell you, it’s going to be ~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples.


The Hundred-Foot Journey: A Delicious Fusion

Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallström serves us a tasty treat in the fairy-tale style of his previous, acclaimed Chocolat (2000). The underlying ingredient that spices up the story this time is more than just dainty sweets. This one is surprisingly gratifying.

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is adapted from the light-hearted novel of the same name by Richard C. Morais. Oscar nominated screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, 2007) has done a marvelous job in turning the cartoonish style of a book into a robust and more complex cinematic parable, with dashes of humor and clever dialogues for added delights.

THFJ Movie Poster

The story is most relevant today in our world overwhelmed by warring differences and conflicts. It is an immigrant story. It also presents an ideal case of how cultures can coexist and harmony can be found in diversity.

The Kadam family leaves India after the tragic loss of their mother and their family restaurant in a fire caused by an angry mob. After a short stay in London, Papa (Om Puri) leads his family to settle in the picturesque village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val in Southern France. The first few minutes of back story is concise and captivating.

Papa soon finds a derelict restaurant for sale. His own Maison Mumbai, the first Indian restaurant in the vicinity is subsequently opened, a seemingly arduous venture. Papa is a headstrong patriarch, undeterred by the initial protests of his sons, and the Michelin starred Le Saule Pleureur across the street. The proprietor of that haute cuisine establishment is the formidable Madam Mallory (Helen Mirren), who is determined to drive her competitor out.

On opposite sides of this one-hundred-foot wide roadway thus rage the battle of sights, sounds, and aromas, of spices and sauces, ambiance and costumes, an all-out war of clashing cultures.

Indian spices

Hassan (Manish Dayal) is the head cook of the Kadam family. He has learned the skills from his late mother; loving memories of her cooking fuel his gastronomic passion. Furthermore, Hassan is endowed with a distinct talent for the culinary art. He is most ready to explore brave new tastes.

The young sous chef across the street, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), plays no small part in Hassan’s curiosity of French cooking. The two strike up an ambivalent relationship as both friends and foes.

After Madam Mallory discovers the gift in Hassan, she offers to take him under her wings. Such a proposition is, expectedly, rejected by Papa. However, it is Hassan’s decision and passion after all. His determination soon overrides the objection from Papa.

By taking his first step to cross the great hundred-foot divide, Hassan turns the page of both parties in the cuisine conflicts. His journey ultimately leads to an additional Michelin star for Le Saule Pleureur and fame for himself. Hassan’s excelling and competing in the qualifying challenge in Paris is the bridge reconciling the two sides of the road.

It is fun to see the hostile rivals Madam Mallory and the patriarch of the Kadam family coming together. Their changed demeanor brings out the latent, better qualities of each other, offering us some nuanced performance and heart-warming scenes. I must note that there were constant, spontaneous laughs and even restrained applause in the theatre of the preview screening I was in.

Peace offering

The film itself is a smorgasbord of international talents. Acclaimed Swedish director Lasse Hallström takes the helm. English Screenwriter Steven Knight adapts a novel by Richard C. Morais, an American born in Portugal and raised in Switzerland. English star Dame Helen Mirren masters some French accented English dialogues, her previous Oscar winning role as The Queen is amusingly embedded. Papa Om Puri is a veteran Indian actor with a British OBE honor. Mandish Dayal who plays Hassan is American born of Indian descent; his love interest is the up-and-coming actress Charlotte Le Bon (also in Yves Saint Laurent, 2014), a French-Canadian from Montreal.

Director of photography Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, 2013, Swedish born BTW) entices viewers with his close-ups of fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, and market offerings. For those who may wonder, those spiked, round objects are sea urchins. The agile and well-paced sequences of food being prepared are most effective. In contrast, the wide-angle, bird’s eye views of the picturesque Southern France countryside are equally mesmerizing.

Music is an important ingredient in the film. Composed by the prolific A. R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for his work in Slumdog Millionaire, the score adds a distinguished Indian flare. With the lively Indian music juxtaposed against the backdrop of serene Southern France, the film offers viewers some interesting mixes of sights and sounds.

There are times when the editing could be tighter, scenes that need to be made clearer and more coherent, especially in the last third of the film. However, the overall production is a delicious offering. The gratifying finish serves the idea that, apart from the Michelin, home is where the ultimate star is to be found, a thought to savor and an enticement for tasting it all over again. I know I will go for a second helping.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Awards Update:

Dec. 11: Helen Mirren gets a Golden Globe nom for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical

Other Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

My book review of The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Haute Cuisine Movie Reivew

Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery