Penguin Press. 336 pages. ISBN 978-0-7352-2429-2
By Anita van de Ven
Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, has been highly acclaimed, quickly becoming a New York Times Bestseller, for very good reason. Ng’s prose is impressive, visually tantalizing and imaginative, and her ability to weave a multitude of story lines together, masterful.
The story takes place in Shaker Heights, where the author herself grew up, a progressive and well-to-do suburb of Cleveland that was built in 1912 as one of the first planned communities in the nation. It describes in incredible, rich detail the lives of two very different types of families and the way each of their lives become intimately intertwined, impacting deeply on one another until the relationships become impossible to sustain.
On the one hand, there is the Richardson family, which consists of mother, father and four teenage children. Mrs. Richardson grew up in Shaker Heights, an orderly neighborhood designed for “the good life” where everything has its place and everyone knows the rules to abide by. She meets her husband at college, and upon graduation, returns to Shaker Heights to raise her family in exactly the matter she had planned. Mrs. Richardson has a strong, albeit rigid, sense of right and wrong, and is respected within her community. She holds the deep belief that everything in life is manageable, as long as it is properly planned for. She is proud of her children, Trip, Moody, and Lexie, who are popular and intelligent (as well as entitled and selfish at times) and well on their way to respected colleges. Her youngest daughter Isabel is the rebel of the family, constantly challenging the status quo, and is therefore a thorn in her mother’s side. On the other hand, there is Mia, an artist and single mother to teenage daughter Pearl. Mia and Pearl have moved from place to place in Mia’s tiny beat-up Volkswagen Rabbit for the majority of Pearl’s life, never living anywhere for longer than a few months, and never owning much more than the clothes on their backs - - and Mia’s art supplies.
Pearl doesn’t question their lifestyle and accepts this as the way it has to be, since she and her mother live in service of Mia’s art: as soon as her mother is finished with a piece, they need to move once again so that she can be inspired to create her next artwork. Now that Pearl is fifteen, the moving has started weighing on the both of them, and Mia decides that it’s time to settle down for a while and let her daughter grow some roots. They rent the upstairs of a small duplex on the fringes of Shaker Heights, owned by the Richardson family. Mrs. Richardson sees the rental as a form of charity and, ever confident in her generous character, perpetuates the power dynamic by insisting Mia take a job cleaning her family home as well as cook a few dinners a week. By this time, her daughter has started becoming infatuated with the Richardson family, so different from her own, spending more and more time at their house. Mia decides to take the job not only for its steady income but to keep an eye on this family which seems to be adopting her daughter.
Pearl is the same age as Moody, the Richardson’s middle son, and they quickly become close friends, Pearl enjoying her time at his house, watching television with her newly adopted siblings, something she hasn’t before experienced in her life. Interestingly, as Pearl starts spending more and more time at the Richardson’s house, Isabel, the youngest Richardson’s daughter, finds a home at the little rental house with Mia. Each day after school she walks to Mia’s house to help her make art, while Pearl watches television with her siblings. Both girls adopt the kind of family home they have always longed for: for Pearl, one of stability, and for Izzy, one that encourages creativity, intimate conversation, as well as the courage to stand up for what you believe in. There are crushes, virginities lost, and lots of secrets, the reader swiftly becoming invested in each and every character of the book.
The book suddenly takes an interesting turn when Mrs. Richardson’s oldest friend, who has tried and failed for many years to have children with her husband, announces that she and her husband have adopted a Chinese baby. It appears that Mia knows something about this particular child, and sets in motion a major disruption to the order that the neighborhood is so accustomed to, not to mention the lives of the newly adoptive parents. We learn the real reason why Mia has moved so much, why Pearl has never known her father, and the many flaws that are exposed within the Richardson family, such as those of the seemingly perfect mother and her daughter Lexie who she has always put on a pedestal (often as leverage against her youngest daughter Izzy, whom she has a tendency to criticize).
For the rest of her life Mia would wonder what her life would have been like if she had not gone to the restaurant that day. At the time it seemed like a lark: just a way to satisfy her curiosity, and get a nice meal in the bargain. Later, of course, she would realize it had changed everything forever.
Little Fires Everywhere is a delightful and moving exploration of humanity and family dynamics, of the flaws we all have, the motives for the things we do and how the decisions we make impact on others, both intentionally and unintentionally. The book is also about the pulls and responsibilities of motherhood, and each mother’s wildly different interpretations of what falls within her maternal responsibilities, as well as the profound complications of multi-culturalism.
The ending of the book was surprising, not through shock value but more in the way that a wonderful summer’s day event is concluded with a surprise show of fireworks, endlessly rich in color and surprising in shape, leaving the reader slack-jawed and in awe of Ng’s mastery of language. But it wasn’t just the literary marvels that moved me as the reader, it was the tenderness that Mia’s character held for the Richardson family, regardless of all that happened, not in the least the fact that the families had to go their separate ways. She shows this tenderness and gratitude in the best and only way she can, by creating an individual portrait for each family member of the Richardson family, left on the kitchen table in the rented apartment that she and her daughter have left for good.
“There was each of them. Mia had stacked them neatly inside: half portraits, half wishes, caught on paper. Each of the Richardsons, as Mrs. Richardson carefully laid out the photos out on the table in a line, knew which was meant for them, recognized it instantly, as they might have recognized their own faces. To the others it was just another photo, but to them it was unbearably intimate, like catching a glimpse of your own naked body in a mirror.”
Ng’s language is so rich in its description, the art coming alive in my imagination, which was deeply enjoyable. Little Fires Everywhere was a joy to read.
A flock of miniature origami birds taking flight, the largest the size of an open palm, the smallest the size of a fingernail, all faintly striped with notepaper lines. Moody recognized them at once, even before he saw the faint crinkles that textured each one: the pages from Pearl’s little notebook, which he had given her and then taken back, which he had destroyed and crumpled and thrown away. Although Mia had flattened the pages, the wrinkles still rippled across the birds’ wings as if the wind was ruffling their feathers. The birds lay over a photograph of sky like a scattering of petals, soaring away from a pebbled leather ground toward higher and better things. You will, too, Mia had thought as she set the birds one by one up in their paper sky.