Celeste Ng’s novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is a tale of morals and motherhood, centred on a controversial adoption case and set in a suburban nightmare.
Meet The Richardsons, a seemingly perfect family in Suburban middle-class America, and their new tenants; nomadic artist Mia, a single mother, and her shy daughter, Pearl. Celeste Ng perfectly captures the stifling world of Shaker Heights and the novel starts with a house fire. A culprit, teenager Izzy, is named immediately, but we don’t yet know why this inferno was started. To my disappointment, at the end of the novel I found myself still unsure why exactly a house fire was a necessary reaction.
There is a lot to love about Ng’s book. She handles the multiple plots with ease, so that as a reader you do not feel roughly thrown between storylines but rather as if you’re gently dipping in between. As each layer of the story develops it’s clear this is a book on motherhood and morals rather than one about arson; the fire is a violent result from the ensuing drama. In Shaker Heights, there are The Richardsons, their tenants, Mia and Pearl, The McCulloughs and Bebe. The reader faces the reality of surrogacy, adoption and abortion, and the ripple effect aftermath on each family. With each moral question, the reader must choose – whose side are you on? Is the pursuit of perfection the biggest danger to the community?
Although the first chapter did not grip me (an overwhelming list of character names), I found myself increasingly drawn into the world of Shaker Heights and the characters as they developed. I do agree with some critics that the white characters are given more emotional depth, as opposed to the simple yet sympathetic portrayal of ethnic stereotypes, but nonetheless the characters grow with each turn of the page. It is clear the writer has clearly studied those around her. Ng perfectly captures the struggles of teenage friendships and first love, the stifling suburbia of Mid-western USA and the uncomfortable tension between women with very different ideas on motherhood.
In particular, I found myself appreciating Ng’s style of writing. In one chapter, Ng illustrates the pain of teenage friendship, with Pearl realising her love for Moody is more platonic than his love for her; “she knew something had changed, and she held this knowledge inside of her like a splinter, something she was careful not to touch”.
Overall, this book is ambitious in all it attempts to challenge. Interracial adoption, unwanted pregnancy and how morals can divide a family are strong themes throughout the book. However, the book spends a considerable amount of time building up the portrait of Shaker Heights and its inhabitants before the catalyst of a custody battle is introduced. The result is that the ending feels too rushed, as if the book does not reach its full conclusion. More than anything, I found myself wishing the book had another chapter or two, because so many key details felt neglected. Where will Izzy go? Will Mrs Richardson ever learn the truth about Lexie? Will the house fire change anything in Shaker Heights?
Perhaps it’s the sign of a brilliant storyteller – I wasn’t ready for the book to end. Its a novel I stayed up late to read and found myself reaching for first thing in the morning, eager to see what happens next. I’d definitely recommend this read, and I’m off to track down Celeste Ng’s other novel.