Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Published: 12th September, 2017
Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principal is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.
Little Fires Everywhere is a sensitive, insightful novel set in Shaker Heights, a perfectly planned suburb near Cleveland.
But Shaker Heights had been founded, if not on Shaker principles, with the same idea of creating a utopia. Order – and regulation, the father of order – had been the Shakers’ key to harmony. They had regulated everything: the proper time for rising in the morning, the proper color of window curtains, the proper length of a man’s hair, the proper way to fold one’s hands in prayer (right thumb over left). If they planned every detail, the Shakers had believed, they could create a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world, and the founders of Shaker Heights had thought the same.
Celeste Ng doesn’t potter around with lengthy introductions, we are dropped straight onto the Richardsons tree lawn where the family gathers to watch their house burn. Fires of multiple origins, as the firemen informs them. The blame is quickly put on the rebellious Izzy, the youngest Richardson child, who is conveniently missing. Makes you wonder what brings a fourteen year old to the point where she sets fire to her family home, doesn’t it.
This is a story filled with small town politics, complex mother-daughter relationships, budding teenage friendships, and some heavy questions. As the omniscient narrator flits around town, our uneasiness grows ; the Richardson house is not the only thing that burns to pieces by the time we turn to the last page.
This book doesn’t try to make a point. We are not told who is right, or who is wrong, who is the bad apple, and who we should root for. Each character is drawn with such empathy and sensitivity, creating a brilliant cast that drives the plot forward.
It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
It is a question that comes up over and over again and not only when we are talking about the case of the white family trying to adopt a Chinese baby.
Mia Warren and Elena Richardson are both mothers, but they are very different. Mia’s nomadic lifestyle and artsy ways raise many eyebrows, while Mrs. Richardson with a steady career, successful husband, and a lovely home is admired by most. But where one shows kindness and compassion, the other one sits in judgement over everyone who doesn’t conform to her ways of living.
“It bothers you, doesn’t it?” Mia said suddenly. “I think you can’t imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose.”
It’s easy to forget sometimes that parents are also people, and as people often do, they make mistakes. Is it selfish to uproot your child twice a year, move from town to town on a regular basis? Maybe. Maybe not. But living in one place for all your life doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a stable home if all a child ever gets is utter disrespect and the constant feeling that she’s just not good enough.
Izzy. Her harebrained live wire of a daughter, the perpetual overreactor, prone to fits of furious indignation about nothing at all.
Perhaps you are childless, like me, but have some ideas how your future children should be raised. Or you are a parent, and this is all too familiar. Maybe you don’t want children at all, and that’s fine. Regardless of who you are, a mum, a dad, a son or a daughter, there are plenty of things in this book for everyone to connect with and reflect on.
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