Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Mia is an artists; she is spirited, individualistic, and nomadic. When she moves her daughter Pearl to the cookie-cutter suburb of Shaker Heights, she promises that this home will be a permanent one. Pearl finds friends in the Richardson children, a quartet of affluent siblings. She quietly is absorbed into their household, but the quaint quietness of the neighborhood is threatened when a court case makes headlines and hits home for many of the characters. A couple close to the Richardsons is caught in a custody battle for the Chinese baby of Mia’s coworker, and what ensues is a fierce battle of morality; what makes a mother? The societal norms are upended for everyone involved, and Elena, the matriarch of the Richardson family, in defending her side of the argument, will stop at nothing to find out the deep secrets rooted in Mia’s past.
Every so often, a book roles around with strong moral themes, a huge platform for discussion, and a big old question mark for interpretation, and it feels rare that a book can do this without being:
C) Too rooted in flowery pondering, and not enough development of the story.
Little Fires Everywhere is exactly this kind of miraculous book. Ng has presented a debate of motherhood and culture, and honestly, I don’t know that there’s a correct answer to the question she poses. Everyone will interpret this story differently, depending on their own values. Throughout the book, even when I felt vehemently rooted to an opinion, Ng would swiftly change my mind pages later. My own opinions in this debate changed throughout the story; one minute, I was rooting for Elena, and the next, I was rooting for Mia, and back and forth all over again. Ng’s novel is truly a thinker.
The story’s tone reminded me of The Virgin Suicides; two parts suburban mundanity, one part family drama, one part enigma. The way Ng paints the quiet town is vivid, even though it’s not that imaginative of a place. Maybe it’s just because I hail from a suburb myself, but I could see the dreamy fumes coming off of the silent, symmetrical houses. I could hear the laughter of kids leaving a high school where everyone knows each other. I could smell the fresh cut grass of a thousand identical lawns. Ng totally nailed the essence of suburban life. I also loved that even though this book spent a lot of time around teenagers, it wasn’t a typical teen drama situation. Ng’s younger characters feel real, and plausible, and non-outrageous in the best way.
On the other hand, I thought that the measures Elena takes to research Mia’s life and to, ultimately, prove herself right about the ongoing custody story, were a little outrageous in an outrageous way. She straight up lies to her family, travels the country,
stalks tracks down Mia’s estranged parents, and inserts herself all up in decades of business and grief and familial pain that isn’t hers to confront. This, to me, is a stretch. However, Elena is kind of a totally annoying human, and Ng’s character development is so strong that I absolutely believe Elena would stoop to this level of bat-shit craziness.
Ng’s story is profound in its discussion, but simplistic in its execution. She deals us a hand of complex and different characters, but she backs them up with such developmental strength. She reels us into one narrative, and thrusts us towards another. Her characters vie for our sympathy and our agreement, and even when they are at their most unlikable, they are just so real. Celeste Ng has given readers a book worthy of our discussion, of our energy, and even of our disagreement. It’s rare that a book so easily enjoyed forced me to reflect so thoroughly, and I’m thankful for it.