Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

Thursday, February 08, 2018

In the town of Shaker Heights, everything is orderly and perfect. The sprawling houses with the
neatly trimmed lawns, the golden-haired children playing in the parks, the upper-middle class parents and their shiny late-model cars and meticulously planned garden parties. Into this idyllic place drop an artist named Mia and her daughter Pearl. They rent an apartment from the Richardsons, a well-to-do family with four teenage children. Enigmatic and mysterious, with a past they keep to themselves, Mia and Pearl prove irresistible to the Richardson children, who each become drawn to one or the other like moths to a flame. Pearl, for her part, is amazed by the privilege the Richardson children have, and the easy way they move through the world. Mia is disquieted by the conventional ideas and opinions of the Richardson parents, but for Pearl's sake, she tries to make peace with Shaker Heights and the people in it. She tries, that is, until she instigates a custody battle between a co-worker and the Richardson's best friends over a baby of Chinese descent, abandoned by the co-worker in a moment of weakness and adopted by the wealthy, white couple. Mrs. Richardson delves into Mia's past to uncover whatever dirt she can find to discredit the artist, and these two acts set off a chain of events that leads to dramatic results for everyone.

This is the plot of Little Fires Everywhere, the latest novel by Celeste Ng. Ng does a good job of evoking the feel of an upper-middle-class suburb, both in her descriptions of Shaker Heights itself, and in her portrayal of the characters of the Richardsons. The Richardson children are nice enough, but have no idea how much privilege they actually have. At least, not until they observe the way that Pearl and her mother have drifted from place to place with very little in the way of possessions. The elder Richardsons, on the other hand, recognize their privilege and assume that of course, everyone would want to live like them, especially someone as seemingly destitute as Pearl and her mother. Of course, Mia wants to be nothing like them. She only desires to make her art and to keep her daughter safe from the influence of the Richardsons and what she sees as their selfish, unthinking lack of empathy towards anyone not like them.

All of the main characters are well written, and at one point or another, you find sympathy for all of them, including the snooty Mrs. Richardson, who's liberalism takes the form of paternalistically thinking she knows what's best for anyone she perceives as below her station. There are some cringe-worthy passages where the adoptive parents of the baby in question try to explain how they will ensure their daughter learns about her Chinese heritage (frequent visits to the local Chinese restaurant seems to be the extent of their plan), but otherwise it's not hard to see the issues presented in the novel from all sides.

The real heart of the book is in the relationships between the children, however. Pearl has an effect on each of them in a different way, and her lack of experience navigating the turbulent waters of sibling rivalries causes her to make decisions that ultimately drive her away from them. She herself really just wants to stay in one place long enough to have stable friends, and she sees the Richardsons of the perfect example of how a family should be. This sets up both unrealistic expectations in Pearl, and her mother's disquiet and ultimate decision to go behind Mrs. Richardson's back and instigate the custody battle. My favorite character of the children was Izzy-poor, misunderstood Izzy-who's outsider nature in the family made her the perfect target for her siblings' abuse and her mother's disapproval.

There is a faint feminist feel to the book, as Ng describes what Mrs. Richardson wanted her life to be like, before she gave up her dreams to become a wife and mother, as well as in Mia's restless wandering and ability to make a life out of the cast-off things of other families. But in the end it is less about women's empowerment than it is about the devastating consequences of being judgemental and/or prying into a person's past without their consent. Both led to hurt feelings and fractured relationships.

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