Sunday, February 25, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere

By Celeste Ng
Penguin Press     2017
352 pages     Literary Fiction

Occasionally—and unfortunately too occasionally—you begin a book that you realize is brilliantly written almost immediately. That is the case of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Ng tells us the end of the story in the first chapter, and then, in back and forth chapters, the entire story comes into view. 

The setting is Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy Cleveland suburb, filled with educated, wealthy parents and privileged kids. Two of the three families in focus are the quintessential Shaker Heights families. The Richardsons have four children—all teenagers. The other Shaker Heights family, the McCulloughs, are fostering an abandoned Chinese baby and want to adopt her. Into this established middle class atmosphere comes the Warrens, Mia and Pearl, who are anything but establishment people. Mia is a photographer and artist, and she and her teenage daughter Pearl have lived all over the country. They rent a duplex from the Richardsons, and Mia promises her daughter that they will stay in this community until Pearl graduates from high school. Pearl becomes fascinated by the Richardson family and what she sees as their normal and ordinary life, and she desperately seeks to be part of that kind of life. As the book begins, there is a fire in the Richardson’s house. The rest of the book tells the story of what brought about the fire, who started it, and why.

There are many fires smoldering throughout the novel. One important fire is the controversy caused by the little Chinese baby, and the white family who wants her. In a moment of weakness, the Chinese mother has left her at the fire station, but now she wants the baby back. The McCulloughs, have fallen in love with the little girl, although controversy swirls in the community over whether a white family can successfully raise a child of another race. From my perspective as the grandmother of several adopted grandchildren, I did not find that this was overtly as racist as some reviewers complained. I felt that it was just part of the dialogue.

In my mind, however, motherhood is the major theme of the book—motherhood in many forms. Elena Richardson, for example, is seldom called Elena—always Mrs. Richardson. “She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance…” Mrs. Richardson has a job; she is a reporter for the local newspaper. But she has never made journalism a career—her career is a housewife and mother. She does know how to investigate,  and as she meets Mia, she becomes more than curious about Mia, the photographer, and Mia, the mother. She decides to investigate Mia’s background and what brought her to have such a nomadic life.

Mia has a huge back story, much of it hinging on her motherhood—how she got and kept Pearl. This makes her sympathetic to the Chinese mother, Bebe Chow, and the circumstances by which she abandoned her baby daughter. Mia’s empathy also helps her to mother Izzy Richardson, the fourth Richardson child, who is neither understood nor validated by her mother. She doesn’t fit the mold that her mother has so carefully defined. Truly, Izzy is one of the most interesting characters in the book, and I would love to know more about what happened to her after she ran away.

Other aspects of motherhood play lesser roles, including unplanned pregnancies and abortions, and the overwhelming desire of the childless to become parents. All contribute to the smoldering sparks of fire.

The little fires all become big fires at the climax of Little Fires Everywhere. I loved that Ng didn’t solve everything in neat and tidy ways. The ending is messy, just like life is messy. She has provided us with the moral dilemmas that affect most families to some degree or another. Mia sums it up as she confronts Mrs. Richardson. “It bothers you, doesn’t it?” Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got? . . . It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.”

The reader is left thinking about the life decisions that she made, the moral dilemmas presented during her lifetime, and the little fires that still smolder. The New York Times reviewer says that Little Fires Everywhere is an “utterly engrossing, often heartbreaking, deeply empathetic experience.”

Little Fires Everywhere has deservedly been on the best seller list for several weeks. I believe that Celeste Ng has a huge career ahead of her. Can't wait for her next book.

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