By Ian G. Wilson
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is lauded as a New York Times Bestseller, and although I often find the bestseller status doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of the writing, Ng’s book is certainly worthy of the accolades. Her plot is deliciously complicated, her characters memorable and the language an exquisite combination of simple words and complex sentence structures, which makes the work, even for readers who might shy away from literary fiction, highly accessible.
The book is set in wealthy Shaker Heights, just outside Cleveland, in the 1980’s. We are first treated to observing the three older Richardson children, Lexie, Trip and Moody, perched on top of Lexie’s SUV and watching the family home go up in flames. It is clear to them that their younger sister (Izzy), who Trip describes as “mental,” is responsible for the arson, but the opening leaves it unclear as to why she would do such a thing.
We are then transported back in time a year, when Mrs. Richardson has rented out the upper floor of a second house she owns to Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl. Pearl and Mia have an unconventional lifestyle, never stopping for very long in one place and carrying all their possessions in a beat-up Volkswagen hatchback. Any furniture they need they pick up from thrift stores or rubbish piles. Mia is a photographer, a famous one, though her lifestyle would suggest anything but. Pearl meets Moody Richardson, who, like her, is a freshman in high school. He introduces her to his family, and soon Pearl is spending more time at the Richardson house than with her mother. The reverse occurs when young Izzy Richardson finds a kindred spirit in Mia and is eager to help with her photographs.
Izzy is the rebellious child of the Richardson family, always arguing with her parents, who seem to find her views of the world inappropriate to their status in the exclusive enclave of Shaker Heights. This comes to a head when friends of the Richardsons try to adopt a Chinese baby who had been left outside a fire station. The baby’s mother returns, and she appears to have recovered from the despondence that led her to leave the baby in the first place. The question arises: should the baby be with its working class Chinese birth mother, or go to the wealthy white friends of the Richardsons? Izzy’s views are clear, and in direct opposition to her parents’.
Meanwhile, we discover the strange circumstances surrounding Mia’s on-the-run lifestyle, a mystery that deepens when Pearl sees a photograph while on a school trip to a museum. It shows Mia with a baby and was taken by a famous New York photographer. Who is the baby? And why has Mia kept silent about being a model for the photograph? The answer is bizarre, but Ng manages to keep the entirety of bizarre characters and their actions well controlled so that nothing ever seems contrived or unrealistic. The teenagers in the story behave like teenagers. The anger and indignation that Izzy feels is heartfelt. The conniving of the other characters serves to make them intriguing, even if it’s hard to believe that there might be everyday people who live on this level of duplicity. All of the motivations make sense—mothers not wanting to lose their children, a liberal-thinking girl trapped by the staid conventions of the Shaker Heights community, being young and falling in love for the first time—are things that readers will relate to.
A tender moment between Mia and Pearl, for example, indicates the bond that Mia hopes still exists with her daughter. Given the power of the similes here, I think there may also be something slightly sinister (or perhaps merely overprotective) in Mia’s attitude:
After Pearl had begun to snore softly, Mia kept her hand in place, as if she were a sculptor shaping Pearl’s shoulder blades. She could feel Pearl’s heart, ever so faintly, beating under her palm. It had been a long time since her daughter had let her be so close. Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less . . . The occasional embrace, a head leaned forward on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.
It’s true that for all its understandable motivations, Little Fires Everywhere is an odd book. The level of backstabbing is intense to the point of making some of the characters seem like evil manipulative geniuses. All of them have secrets they are trying desperately to keep or a way of life they are trying to protect. They are well-drawn characters with curious backstories, and the peculiarity of their actions makes them even more memorable. They are acting for understandable reasons, but the actions themselves are strange and unpredictable. The reader never quite knows the lengths to which characters will go to protect themselves or crush someone whom they resent.
One of the strongest comparisons made in Ng’s book is between rich and poor—not only between Mia’s family and the Richardsons, but also in the descriptions of Shaker Heights versus Cleveland. Shaker Heights is all about appearances—mostly superficial things like the height of residents’ grass (no more than six inches) to the colors of the three styles of house permitted in the suburb. For Lexie Richardson, Cleveland is ugly:
It huddled on the edge of a dead dirty lake, fed by a river best known for burning; it was built on a river whose very name meant sadness: Chagrin. Which then gave its name to everything, pockets of agony scattered throughout the city, buried like veins of dismay: Chagrin Falls, Chagrin Boulevard, Chagrin Reservation. Chagrin Real Estate. Chagrin Auto Body. Chagrin reproducing and proliferating, as if they would ever run short. The Mistake on the Lake, people called it sometimes, and to Lexie, as to her siblings and friends, Cleveland was something to be escaped.
The timelines of the book swing back and forth as more and more information about the characters’ histories are revealed. This is skillfully handled, so you don’t lose track of whose background you’re reading about and the transitions are smooth. I have to admit, I was a little intimidated when I read that Ng is a Harvard educated MFA and imagined that I’d be running for the dictionary every third word. But Ng is refreshingly unpretentious in her style (I didn’t run to the dictionary at all) and manages to command a relatively simple vocabulary into meaningful, tense dialog, sentences that while complicated and intelligently written are still easy to follow, luscious, somewhat tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the Shaker Heights setting, and appropriate, but not overdone, figures of speech.
Celeste Ng was born in 1980, the child of parents from Hong Kong. She grew up in Pittsburgh and Shaker Heights. Her father was a physicist and her mother a chemist, but Ng veered away from science, instead focusing on her English degree at Harvard and her MFA at the University of Michigan. Little Fires Everywhere is her second novel, and it is currently being adapted as a television serial.
Little Fires Everywhere was published by Penguin Books in 2017 and is now available at Greenville Public Library.