Published by Penguin Press
Publication date: September 12th 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
In her outstanding debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng delicately exposed the family tragedy that can result from unrealistic expectations and the insecurity of trying to fit into a new culture. In her newest novel, Little Fires Everywhere, the Richardson family has no such problem. They are picture postcard perfection, happily sailing through their lives in lovely Shaker Heights, Ohio. Mom Elena is a journalist for the local newspaper, Dad is an attorney for a large Cleveland law firm and Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy are four well-adjusted, healthy, teenagers. Well, maybe not Izzy. When the family home goes up in flames and Izzy doesn’t show up afterwards her siblings are certain it’s because she did it and knows just how much trouble she’s in. This literal burning down of the family home is how Ng begins her figurative dismantling of a family that seems to have it all.
Elena, in particular, is living the life she always knew she would. She was born and raised in Shaker Heights and went no further than a nearby college for her degree. Her greatest struggle so far in life was with the premature birth of her youngest daughter, Isabella, which left her fearing that her daughter would not develop normally or that she would have health problems forever. When Izzy runs into life head-on and acts out she rails at the willful girl, perpetuating the myth that Izzy is a problem child—something none of her siblings ever were. For them, life is a relaxing paddle down a placid river, never the endless rapids and ups and downs that Izzy feels. Why does everyone else in her family know exactly who they are and where they’re meant to be when it’s such a struggle for her?
It was, as Lexie put it, vintage Izzy: freak out for no reason, do something crazy, learn nothing from it.
Only when Elena rents out an apartment to Mia Warren and her fifteen-year-old daughter Pearl do the family dynamics begin to shift. Mia is an artist and in an effort to pay her bills agrees to clean the Richardson’s house and make their evening meal. In doing so, she befriends Izzy, who finds Mia’s just-do-it attitude the one she’s been waiting for. For her part, Pearl is thrilled to be in Shaker Heights, a place where her mother has promised they will stay. She and Moody are the same age and become friends, but soon she is spending time with Trip and Lexie as well and revels in everything about them that Izzy fights against.
And so, using that most elemental faction, family, Ng creates the tensions that light Little Fires. The experiences of Mia and Pearl are diametrically opposed to the Richardsons—moving every few months, no belongings, no history, no permanence. It’s what Mia says she needs for her art, but Pearl longs for stability. This is antithetical to Elena’s regimented view of life, but, for a time, it works for everyone, until a situation arises that put Mia and Elena in direct opposition. In an effort to keep control of her worldview, Elena exerts her indomitable belief in her way as the only way, providing the match that burns down their lives.
By three-fourths of the way through Little Fires Ng begins unmasking her characters, with all their frailties and shortcomings. In doing so, she shifts the reader’s alliances, forcing contemplation of our notions of ourselves that may not jibe with who we thought we were. These questions arise without grandiose plot twists, just the decisions made every day, each with its own set of motivations and each one leads to more questioning. Would I have done that? In some cases, it makes for less judgment of her characters and a better understanding of the choices made, but in others the feeling is more one of dismay and even antipathy. By the end of the novel, Ng’s witchy ability to read deep into the human heart reminds us that, more often than not, there is plenty of blame to go around.