Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
"Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way."
What a way to kick off 2018. Little Fires Everywhere is the second novel by Celeste Ng. Everyone I know raved about her debut, Everything I Never Told You, which is on my TBR list. I got Little Fires Everywhere as my BOTM pick for September, but just now decided to pick it up. I cannot believe I didn't immediately devour it. It made just about everyone’s Best Books of 2017 lists, even taking home the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction. And rightfully so; it completely lives up to all the hype.
Little Fires Everywhere takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990s. Shaker Heights is a suburb of Cleveland and the first planned community in America. Mia Warren, an artist with a past, and her teenage daughter Pearl move to Shaker Heights after countless stints in other towns. They have never had much money and uproot each time Mia finishes one of her projects. They move into a duplex on the outskirts of Shaker Heights that is owned by Elena Richardson. Elena and her husband Bill, along with their four teenage children, live in a large house with perfect landscaping and seem to have it all. The two families could not be more different, yet shortly after Mia and Pearl move into town, the two families are so intertwined, it is hard for either family to remember life before the other.
The novel starts with the Warrens leaving town and Izzy, the Richardson’s youngest, supposedly lighting several fires to the family home. The rest of the novel works backwards and focuses on how the two families got to that point. Pearl and Moody, the Richardsons' second son and third child, are the same age and instantly hit it off. As Pearl starts to visit Moody at his house after school, she quickly befriends Lexie, the eldest, and develops a crush on Trip, the second oldest. Izzy, as we know from the very beginning, is the rebel and black sheep of the family and pretty much keeps to herself. Pearl is drawn to the Richardsons and their normal life, while the Richardson children, especially Lexie and Izzy, find themselves captivated by Mia and her outlook on life.
As Mia’s lifestyle and her presence in the Richardson family’s life begin to unnerve Elena, she is determined to dig into her past and find out what Mia could be hiding. Through all of the Richardson-Warren drama, there is a whole subplot that not only affects each main character, but also the whole Shaker Heights community. Mark and Linda McCullough, good friends of Bill and Elena, are in the process of adopting a Chinese girl that was dropped off at a fire station, after years of infertility and trying to adopt. As the McCulloughs near the close of the adoption process, the baby’s birth mother Bebe shows up and sues for custody. I found this whole storyline fascinating and was eager to see how it would impact each character. Everyone has an opinion on who the baby should end up with, even dividing families who cannot agree. It also touches on what it means for white parents to raise a child of another race. Celeste Ng handled this beautifully and made me think about both sides of the argument.
This is not a plot-heavy book, but one of those fantastic character-driven novels. As we see each character deal with her own issues, it’s a testament to Celeste Ng’s writing that I could despise one character, and then find myself pitying them a few chapters later. There were many major characters, but each one was fully formed and extremely flawed. Even the stereotypical jock character Trip develops into a more complex character throughout the book, although Moody was hands-down my favorite character. Of the four Richardson children, he is the least noticeable and just kind of blends in; he’s not the popular kid, but he’s also not a loser. He is smart, sensitive, and plays the guitar. You know his best years are ahead of him, while Trip will most likely peak in high school. He is really into Pearl, but accepts the fact that she just wants to be friends. Moody is just such a sweetheart; even when he was a jerk later on, I found myself completely understanding where he was coming from.
Elena Richardson and Mia Warren could not be more different, yet what I loved most about Little Fires Everywhere is how much of the story was about motherhood. It didn’t even register until after I finished the book (and immediately wanted to go back and reread it) that the major theme is what does being a mother mean. Is it biological? Is it the societal norm? For those who aren’t biological mothers and don’t conform to the two-parent, middle-class lifestyle, you still would do anything for your child. The contrast between Elena and Mia underscores that theme. They each make decisions based on what she believes is best for her children, even when those decisions end up hurting others.
I cannot say enough good things about Little Fires Everywhere. I loved everything about it. It is definitely on my list of favorite books from the last several years. I give it 5 stars.
What recent books lives up to all they hype it has received?