By Heidi Simmons
“Little Fires Everywhere”
by Celeste Ng – Fiction
Whether we like it or not, we are a part of some family and community. Close or distant, the favorite or a black sheep, we do our best to find our place, and cope. Celeste Ng ignites the challenges of family and motherhood in “Little Fires Everywhere” (Penguin Press, 338 pages).
The story takes place in a Cleveland, Ohio, suburb called Shaker Heights, which is a real community and is the actual hometown of author Ng.
Planned as a progressive and idyllic neighborhood to inspire order, advantage and contentment, Shaker Heights was designed in 1912. The founding citizens sincerely desired to create a well-balanced society. However, it is still a place where there is more old money than new, and the local high school feeds its grads into Ivy League colleges.
It begins with the Richardson family who is “old” money and lives in a grand home. Mrs. Richardson prides herself on being open minded, blind to race and color and likes to help those with less to “get a leg up” by renting out her inherited duplex at a minimum cost. In doing so, she continues to promote the ideals of Shaker Heights.
When Mrs. Richardson’s new tenants, Mia, a single mother, and Pearl, her 15-year-old daughter, take residence, the Richardson family’s seemingly perfect existence is challenged.
Mia is a passionate, nomadic artist whose provocative photographs command a good price in a New York gallery. Yet, Mia seems to be uninterested in making money. It’s more about the significance of her work. She and her daughter have lived in 48 different locations since Pearl was born.
But, for the first time, Mia believes Shaker Heights might be a place she and her daughter can stay. When the Richardson children hear about the eccentric renters, they become intrigued. Pearl is welcomed into the Richardson home and becomes friends with the four Richardson teenagers. It is a life Pearl has never experienced and one in which she blossoms.
As idyllic and uncomplicated as suburban life may be on the outside, behind closed doors life is continuously complex and the teen children in this story — through the help of the artistic and mysterious outsiders — begin to see the world differently.
The story is told by a perceptive and diligent omniscient voice. The narrator is insightful and intimately understands the layers of living in such a controlled suburban culture. As the mysteries of the suburbanite players unfold and intersect in provocative ways, Ng reveals a universal humanity.
Author Ng is a commanding writer whose astute prose serve the story. The narrator is a character who aids in unraveling the secrets of those who live in Shaker Heights. This carefully constructed telling provides a gravitas that otherwise would be a soap opera or Young Adult novel.
Strong women dominate the story’s world and there is a significant theme about motherhood, the desicions made to bring forth life, and how women protect and serve the lives they bare. Choice and Pro-Life issues emerge and are considered by several of the characters.
As for “little fires everywhere,” the story is void of life-threatening dangers. Shaker Heights’ little fires are all about maintaining a status quo, keeping up appearances and not becoming the subject of gossip.
Yet, Ng’s women are colorfully dimensional as we come to know their hopes, dreams and disappointments.
The character Mia especially intrigued and surprised me. I liked how she lived her art. But when we finally understand her eccentric lifestyle, we also learn that she has never experienced the comfort and companionship of a sexual relationship. Pearl’s life came forth like an immaculate conception. This revelation seems substantial, although the narrator glosses over it.
The themes in this book could be more powerful. Whether out of choice or inexperience – as a writer or young author — I felt Ng didn’t pursue the deeper thematic relevance in the lives of those in the story and bigger world which would have made the read even more provocative and profound.
I appreciate that at no time does the author identify race through description. The reader only gets a sense of race in context, through the eyes of the characters themselves. It’s refreshing to just see the people as human beings and interracial relationships as just relationships.
I like Ng and have decided to put her on my list of favorite writers because, yes, she writes well, but she also consciously serves the story first. “Little Fires Everywhere” is only her second novel. I look forward to what comes next. As she matures, I am certain her themes will burn more brightly.