I picked up Little Fires Everywhere after it came highly recommended and the work of fiction did not disappoint. Celeste Ng’s second novel snaps the portrait of community, its families and their friends, highlighting the thorny issues that drive them apart and draw them together. The character-driven story delves into a variety of themes, in real and honest ways: adoption, abortion, motherhood, teenage love, risks and regrets, family dynamics, social class, racial issues and dreams for the future. While the start of the book is slow-going due to an intensive meet-and-greet with key characters, those very details set the stage for the story’s unfurling.
The story revolves around the adoption of a Chinese baby whose mother leaves her at a fire station, but later wants her daughter back. The wealthy and successful Richardson family are friends with the adoptive parents and parents, themselves, to four teenagers. The Richardsons rent out an inherited duplex to the Warrens, a struggling artist and her teenage daughter who never stay in a single place for long. The mother, Mia Warren, ultimately tells the birth mother where her baby is, while her daughter, Pearl, befriends the Richardson children and indulges in their luxurious lifestyle.
Each character was beautifully complex and, while portions of the plot line felt predictable, it was simply because the characters were so well-developed that you understood how they would likely react in a particular set of circumstances. Filled with good intentions and imperfect people, there were no clear-cut answers. I loved the intoxicating mundanity of the story, from the teenage angst and heartbreak to struggles with fertility and the humility necessary to make ends meet. The story takes place across the span of less then a year and offers tiny snippets of everyday life from multiple perspective, all viewing the same community through their own unique lens.
The narrative was lovely and descriptive, offering powerful analogies, poignant emotions and a tactful approach to touchy subjects, all of which transport the reader to the current dramas consuming the upscale community of Shaker Heights. Throughout the book, I found myself impressed with the author’s choice of words, phrasing and comparisons without ever feeling that she was trying too hard to sound articulate. Even amid the teenage drama and high school tropes, the story felt new and exciting.
The story starts and ends at the same moment in time–when the Richardson home is burning to the ground—and captures the series of events that ultimately led up to the event. The book is thoughtful, complex and filled with insights on an assortment of controversial topics, skillfully plucking apart each issue from two or more valid angles.
My biggest takeaway was this: The little fires in our life feel momentous, while inconsequential to those around us; yet all those individual stories weave together to form the shape of a family, community, or humanity at large. We are all characters in life’s charade, and our stories are not as separate as we perceive them to be.
I found Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere smart, thought-provoking and nearly-impossible to put down. If you’re thinking about checking it out, here’s one more enthusiastic recommendation.