Book review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Saturday, October 7, 2017 Permalink

I didn’t read Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, but obviously heard great things about it. (And must read it at some point.) I’ve had a bit of a lull in the arrival of new books of late however, so when I saw this in an online catalogue, jumped at the chance to read it.

I’m a little worried however, exactly how I’ll describe the transfixing allure of this book and if I’ll do justice to it. But I shall try….

Book review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste NgLittle Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng
on September 7th 2017
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1408709724, 9781408709719
Pages: 367

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.

I think the most interesting and the very clever thing about this book is that it starts with a moment that is – essentially – the end. Sort of. It occurs to me circular plots used to be more of a thing, however more recently we’re offered prologues reflecting some past event and then move forward from there. Or we jump back and forth to see how our characters move from the past to the present.

Ng opens this book with the Richardsons’ house on fire. No one – at least none of her family – doubt it was Isabelle (Izzy) the youngest of four children. Only her brother Moody (second youngest of the siblings) suggests they offer her the benefit of the doubt.

And then we head back in time.

I made a note halfway through the book that we were STILL embroiled in the backstory, waiting to jump forth to learn more about Izzy’s fate. I didn’t realise at the time the entire book is an explanation of how ‘we’ (well, Izzy her family, Mia and Pearl) got to that point and place in time.

Although Ng writes well, it’s more the plot itself that draws we readers into this mesmerising tale. She develops complex characters – not at all black / white – although they may appear that way on first glance. Ng delves into their shiny and smooth exteriors to give us a glimpse into what lies beneath. Mirroring that of the Shaker Heights community in many ways.

Pearl’s journey (#sorrynotsorry) was probably one of the more interesting. (And I think – though it’s bizarrely hard to recall even though I only read it last night* – that most of the book is told from her point of view, with snippets via Mrs Richardson now and then.)

Because of the way the book opens, I assumed the focus would be Izzy, but – although we spend more time with her later – the central character of this book is really Pearl. And she is a delight. She’s insightful, but surprises us. Often.

It was as if she glanced at a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces and saw the whole picture without even consulting the box. Pearl’s mind, it became clear, was an extraordinary thing, and Moody could not help but admire how fast her brain worked, how effortlessly. It was a pure pleasure, watching her click everything into place. pg 35

Pearl’s used to the transient life she’s been living with her mother but keen for something different and her mother promises some stability so her smart talented daughter can live a more normal life.

She didn’t however, count on Pearl’s submersion into the Richardson family. it worries her mother, but before she knows it Mrs Richardson (always looking for a philanthropic project) draws Mia into the family circle as well, though she (surprisingly) bonds with the usually surly and much-maligned Izzy more than her siblings.

Interestingly it’s not the obvious wealth of the Richardson children that Pearl initially envies. It’s the stability, or sense of presence she’s never had. Something (I suspect) that comes from finding your place in the world and knowing you belong there.

They were so artlessly beautiful, even right out of bed. Where did this ease come from? How could be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in their pajamas? p 39

Things obviously fall to pieces, which culminates in Izzy’s ultimate act of rebellion and it’s interesting to follow the myriad of threads (or small fires I guess) which get us there.

Much of the ‘backstory’ includes more backstory. We revisit Elena Richardson’s younger years and better understand her feelings towards Izzy – though it’s bloody frustrating and incredibly unfair.

… the feeling coalesced in all of them: Izzy pushing, her mother restraining, and after a time no one could remember how the dynamic started, only that it had existed always. p 102

We also meet a younger Mia and discover how she came to be living in the Richardsons’ rental property.

We eventually get back to the house fire at the beginning and though there’s some sense of closure and some answers, I was happily left hanging in many respects. It’s not the sort of novel in which we expect everyone and everything to end ‘happily ever after’.

It’s deeper and more complex in many ways and reminds us that people aren’t always who they appear to be; and that Atticus Finch remains correct in his assertion that we can’t understand others’ actions until we’ve walked in their shoes… and perhaps even then we can’t ever recreate their circumstances and state of mind.

I very much enjoyed this book by Ng which touches on a number of social issues as well as the parent / child dynamic, and wraps them up in a complex, mesmerising and (just slightly) heartbreaking story.

As an aside, the only slightly weird thing for me is that the book is obviously set in the past but it felt like it took a while to work out when. There was mention of an early mobile phone, before context added by reference to the (then) President Clinton.

The version of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng I received will be published by Little Brown Book Group in February 2018, however it is currently available in other locations.

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 

* I suspect this is because the book ‘feels’ as if we get into the heads of the Richardson siblings, which gets us even more invested in the plot and their lives.


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