At the moment I’ve found myself particularly drawn to novels that tackle these themes, whether that was in The Hate U Give, last months read, or Lullaby, review to come, and now this, Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
The novel opens with a fire consuming the Richardson’s home and the suspicion that the families youngest daughter, Isabel was responsible. The narrative also tantalisingly tells us that the fire was not the only controversy to hit the small town of Shaker Heights that summer but also the a custody battle between a Chinese-American baby, her mother and a family hoping to adopt her.
With the stage set, the narrative takes us back to before the fire started and introduces us to the Richardson family; mother Elena, a reporter at a local newspaper, Mr Richardson a successful lawyer, Trip the all-American sports player, Lexi her popular elder daughter, Moody, their younger teenage son and Isobel or Lizzie, the youngest and the proverbial spanner of in the works of an otherwise perfect looking American family.
Rather interestingly for a novel that picks apart issues of class and race, it’s told predominantly from a white, middle-class perspective. The likes of Bebe Chow’s story, a mother who abandons her child as a result of poverty, only to try to win her back, is told by others. By adopting this dominant point of view, as readers we’re able to see the flaws, prejudices and injustices the lay beneath the surface of white, middle-class life in Shaker Heights, the mid-Western town where the novel is set. Based on the principles of order and perfection, Shaker Heights seemingly offers the ‘ideal life’, one we’re all told to aspire to. But tis is soon challenged by the arrival of artist Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, who move into the Richardson’s rental home. The writer uses them not so much to peek behind the façade of the Richardson families seemingly perfect lives, as much as rip the façade away completely.
This is a story that forces us to question what it means to be a mother, how we define ‘success’, the complexities of friendship and how we view race and class depending on our views and experiences. It does so through the flawed yet complex characters in the novel. This shows what an excellent writer Ng is that she’s able to turn, what could have been one-dimensional characters, into real people with tangible, relatable problems we all may have felt at one time.
Even Izzy, a character I was fully expecting to be yet another stereotypical spoilt, stroppy teenager, turned out to be so much more. Ng uses her to offer a counterpoint to the ordered existence of the rest of the Richardson clan. She shows them up for what they are and in return she’s shunned and bullied, especially by mother Elena, who finds her views at odds with her own. This is why Izzy is so drawn to Mia in particular because she is everything her mother isn’t. The Warren’s and Richardson’s lives couldn’t be more different and each acts as a counterpoint to the other, offering alternative windows into working-class and middle-class American life.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away as I really want you all to go out and buy/borrow and read this novel. What I do want to say it that at some point in the novel, every characters reaches a point of crisis or faces a struggle they must overcome and as they do so, we as readers are forced to reflect on what we would do in a similar situation. Would I have made that decision or behaved in that way?
One example is Moody’s behaviour at the end of the novel towards Pearl. To me it felt like a betrayal of his friendship and love for her and yet was still perfectly plausible. How many of us have said something we wished we hadn’t when we felt hurt or betrayed?
Even though it’s fair to say I approached this novel hoping to discover what the Celeste Ng had to say about class and race in 1990’s America, what she actually did was take this issues and refract them though the lens of motherhood and what it means to be a ‘mother’.
In doing it never felt as we us, the reader where being lectured to. Instead, the novel allows the reader to make up their own minds by presenting multiple sides of the argument whilst also showing the futility of trying to find the right or wrong answer.
Like the little fires everywhere that are started in the Richardson’s home, this novel lights little fire inside its reader, causing us to examine our own feelings about the issues presented in the novel. One of the key lines in the book is said by Mia. Talking to Lizzie she says to her, “sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that too. They start over. They find a way.”
I’ll leave you with that thought and my recommendation that if you read nothing else this summer, read this book.
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