Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng
This month in my book club, it was my pick. I have been dying to read Little Fires Everywhere going on a year now – seriously – but just haven’t had the time with review work obligations. I really need to find a better balance of work reading versus pleasure reading, especially as my TBR pile has multiplied to a ridiculous amount, spilling from my bedside table onto my desk, with the excess stacked up in two dangerously tall piles in my library.
Little Fires Everywhere did not disappoint. And I’m glad of it, since my pleasure reading time is so precious to me. I’m also always a little nervous when picking a book for my book club. I’d hate to pick a dud (my friend Kelley did one month and we haven’t let her live it down yet, ha ha!) and I’m always conscious of everyone else’s reading preferences. We are a bit of an eclectic mix who fall into several different reading preference categories, but the four of us generally can agree if a book is good or bad. I’ve been waiting on pins and needles to hear if they liked Fires as much as I did and luckily, they enjoyed it nearly as much as I did.
This book was . . . well, overall, it was simply a portrait of human character. It carefully and thoughtfully peeled back the layers of the contributing factors give a person their personality, whether it be person, place, thing, or idea. Whether it be setting or circumstance. Time or space. Or all of the above. It detailed the nuances that keep a personality in its place, and what sways a person to make the decisions they make. It got raw, and it got dirty. At times, it was hauntingly real in the way that the author could slice right down the middle of the character’s insecurities and lay them open and bare.
Of course, there were some instances where the details got a little too deep and a little too particular. There were so many characters that the back and forth of points of view became a bit tedious, your mind wandering from this person to that. It was hard to get attached to any one character, but in reflection, I wondered if this was the author’s intent. We discussed it in my book club . . . how the characters could sometimes feel a little flat. Again, I argued that perhaps this was the intention all along. Shaker Heights is a real place, and author Celeste Ng grew up there. Was she poking fun at her traditional and ideally flawless little town? This book was not perfect, but it was a page-turner. There was a plethora of winding and twisty turning story-lines constantly weaving in and out of one another, making it feel like you were wrapped up in a daytime soap opera. They nestled into one another like Russian dolls, each character’s path fitting inside the others with flush precision. And the ending . . . well. It was an ending, I can say that much.
The town of Shaker Heights is full of little houses made of ticky-tacky, just like the song suggests. The people there are the epitome of cookie-cutter, even in the standard way they strive for diversity and range. Everything has its place and its purpose; every shade of skin color is accounted for in much the same way that the colors of the houses are chosen. It is a masterfully planned community, right down to the studs.
There are rules in Shaker Heights, rules on how many trees you have to have in your yard or where your garbage can can be (and at what time it can be there). Rules on speed limits and how many animals each home can handle. And for the most part – it all works. The residents of Shaker Heights take their community and its way of life as something to be treasured; it is a Utopia and must be treated as such.
Mrs. Richardson grew up in Shaker Heights and never had any desire to leave the comforting motherly embrace the town provided. She thrived on the structure and glory that the town slowly embedded in her over the years; Shaker Heights carefully watched as she grew from adolescent into woman, and Elena Richardson hoped her children would grow up in her image. After all, who could want more than a tidy little existence in a tidy little town? No surprises, no nastiness, everything remained clean and beautiful and idyllic.
Trip and Moody Richardson are her sons, and they are the epitome of what embodies the Shaker Heights Young Man. Trip plays sports and has rugged good looks that have captured the eye of many a young lady. Moody lives up to his name and spends feverish afternoons writing in his journal or riding around the quiet tree-lined streets on his bike. Mrs. Richardson’s oldest daughter Lexie is equally appealing with her WASP’ish good looks and beauty queen smile. But then there’s Izzy, the black sheep . . . the odd girl out . . . the child who must always question everything and insists on going her own way, especially if its against the grain. Izzy is the child who always has a problem shoved up her sleeve, always ready to throw it like a bomb on a battlefield.
Izzy has always been difficult, even a as a young child. Mrs. Richardson even insists that she knew Izzy would be trouble even as the infant floated around in her womb. Thankfully she has become a little more manageable since the Warren family came to town, spending her after-school hours as a pseudo assistant to the enigmatic artist instead of plotting her next revenge. Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl drove into Shaker Heights from God knows where and planted themselves in the Richardson’s investment property, renting out the upstairs space and setting down some not-so-firm roots. Mia is a photographer of some sort, a job that the formally educated Mrs. Richardson could never understand. The whimsical Mia, with her peasant skirts and thrift store bracelets, spends her days creating what she calls art from nothing . . . fragments of their little town distorted into images manipulated in a dark room to suit Mia’s whim and fancy. Her daughter Pearl possesses a quiet shyness that borders on socially awkward, never having been in one place long enough to make friends organically. But Pearl and Moody, they have caught on like fire, and it feels as if you can’t find one without finding the other since the Warren’s move to Shaker Heights.
It doesn’t take long for the wounds to begin showing through the worn bandage, the blood vivid and shiny. While Shaker Heights appears perfect on the outside, scratching softly upon the surface allows what’s underneath to show. When a prominent family in town announces their impending adoption of a little Asian baby, the real trouble begins. Mia Warren quietly and deftly inserts herself into the equation, urging those around her to do the same. She knows who that baby really belongs to and she knows the situation is going to get messy. But she’s been in messy places before, she’s had to make hard choices in her dark past, and she knows that she can’t walk away from what is in front of her. Not like she did before.
The case of the baby will split the town into two equal pieces, throwing neighbors in separate chasms and pitting lifelong friends against one another. Mia Warren will be at the center of it all, her daughter an extension, and Mrs. Richardson’s family threaded into the scandal as purveyors of what they believe to be true justice. Will the ties that bind be enough to keep the family together, or will Izzy burn it all down around them – as is her custom?
Little Fires Everywhere is the newest novel by Celeste Ng, and has taken book clubs around the country by storm. Hulu has announced an impending development of the book into a limited television series, and Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington have attached themselves to the project. A quick and enticing read, Fires catches the reader from early on, allowing its burn to spread and gather as the pages turn and the story builds on top of itself. Layer upon layer is applied, in a touch so tender you barely see it coming. It is appropriate for ages 15+, and touches on relationships from that particular age group all the way into adulthood. There are more than a few frank discussions about sex and pregnancy, but it is all very relevant to the plot and situation that readers of all ages will be able to relate to.
The takeaway in my book club for this particular novel was that while the book was an easy and fun read, it was also viewed by some as a story was a little too young for their taste; a touch too YA fiction instead of adult. While the plot is split between points of view, and quite a few of those characters are indeed teenagers, I personally didn’t find it to be an issue. For me personally, the overall feeling was that of an adult fiction novel.
That’s probably what I love best about my book club – we are all such different readers coming from different walks of life and points of view, and we can be hit by the same book in totally conflicting ways. It makes for a great group discussion, and our differences always lead to growth in my book comfort zone.
I give Little Fires Everywhere 4.5 out of 5 stars and recommend it to those who like easy and fast reads that are engaging and full of mystery. It is both plot and character driven which makes it semi-unique, and while the development is not strong in the character sense, the plot more than makes up for it. Readers who enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies or Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth would equally enjoy Little Fires Everywhere.