Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
June 1, 2018
I feel rather ambivalent about my reading of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Having read, and enjoyed, Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, and knowing this book has rave reviews on GoodReads, I was excited to start reading.
In the genteel, placid, carefully-planned suburban neighborhood of Shaker Heights, Ohio, the Richardson family has staked their claim. Lifelong resident, Elena, grew up there, went to college for journalism, married, and returned to Shaker Heights as a local journalist. She and her successful lawyer husband have four beautiful children: Trip – charming and rakish; Lexie – gregarious and proudly progressive; Moody – sensitive and smart; and Izzy – rebellious, impulsive and the least-favorite of the four.
Their routine, but pleasant, lives are disrupted when Mia and Pearl Warren, a mother-daughter duo, take up residence of the top floor of the Richardson’s rental home. Mia is a freelance artist with a bohemian flair, never setting down roots for long. In fact, we learn that she and Pearl have moved across the U.S. 46 times since Pearl was born. This time, though, Mia has promised that they will “stay for good.” Pearl and Moody become close friends, and as a result, Pearl becomes ingrained in the Richardson household, watching TV in the evenings with all the siblings, helping with homework, and eventually, developing a crush on Trip.
While Pearl is attracted to the stability and lush life of the Richardson children, they, in turn, become increasingly fascinated with Pearl’s life, and in particular, with mysterious and rule-breaking Mia Warren. Through the intermixing of the families, one by one, each teen’s inner life unfolds, and it’s clear that all is not as it seems. Mia, at the center, witnesses each character’s strengths and foibles, and somehow, she becomes their beacon.
The larger idyllic bubble of Shaker Heights is shattered when the McCullough’s, friends of the Richardson’s, become ingrained in a custody battle for their nearly-adopted Chinese-American baby. Bebe Chow, the biological mother of the baby is a close friend and colleague of Mia’s, and Mia’s support of Bebe raises the ire of Elena, who already resents her for appearing to be indifferent to the rules of society and class. Elena decides to use her background as a journalist to investigate Mia’s past, and as the two plot lines collide, the largest fire of all simmers in the background.
While the story kept me [mostly] intrigued throughout, the only character who truly drew some emotion out of me was Mrs. Richardson, mostly because her stubborn ignorance, or more specifically, the undisguised disdain the author clearly wants readers to have for her, really grated on my nerves. In contrast, it was abundantly clear that Mia is supposed to be a likable character, the foil to Mrs. Richardson, and while she is certainly interesting, I'm not sure I like her characterization as the moral center of the book.
Mrs. Richardson is a working mother who put her career dreams on the back-burner to focus on being present for her children. She’s mostly pleasant and doting toward her children, and has provided the sort of stable lifestyle that enables Lexie to apply to and get accepted at Yale. Mia, in contrast, is a “free-spirited” artist with a “tragic” background, which primarily involves agreeing to become a surrogate mother in exchange for money for college, but changes her mind and takes off with the baby, Pearl, in her womb, never to be heard from by family and friends again. Despite uprooting Pearl’s life on a semi-annual basis since birth, and forcing her to live with thrift-store clothes and a mattress on the floor, we, the readers, are made to believe that Mia is the better mother, nay, the better person, than the privileged, repressed, conforming Mrs. Richardson.
We learn about Mia’s past through a series of starts and stops in the narration, with flashbacks often interrupting a scene. We learn that Mia, as a college student, was pursued through the New York subway system by a complete stranger, who thought that, because she looked similar to his wife, would be a perfect surrogate mother for their child. Without any real vetting, and despite the fact that they have the means to find a surrogate through more traditional channels, this couple has their hearts set on Mia. And Mia, without much thought, agrees to the proposal, because they seem like “nice people.” Come on! I'm expected to swallow this story?
We also learn that, prior to her pregnancy, Mia had a strained relationship with her parents, but a close relationship with her brother, Warren. When her brother dies in a tragic accident shortly before Pearl’s birth, Mia decides to take off. She never tries to reunite with her parents, and they, apparently, don’t care enough about their only living child, who is now also pregnant, to look for her. On top of all this, Mia is purported to be an artist of immense talent, who sells a few of her photographs every so often, for just enough money to keep her and Pearl afloat in the world. Overall, her characterization is too close to a “manic pixie dream girl” for my tastes.
Now, I want to go back to my comments on Mia, and how her transient lifestyle has affected Pearl. I, in no way, believe that a house full of “things” and all the privilege in the world, make for a better life for any child. Indeed, I think many children today who have the latest electronic device and smartphone don’t appreciate the value of the beautiful intangibility of life as a human being. However, I feel Ng was too heavy-handed in making a clear distinction between the “good person” –free-spirited, self-assured Mia – and the “bad person” – materialistic, inhibited Mrs. Richardson – in this story. If a character liked Mia, they were clearly good; those who didn’t were clearly bad; those who eventually “came around” had a favorable arc. I don’t like being told who to root for when I read, and Ng’s heavy-handedness left a sour taste in my mouth.
Another example of the good person vs. bad person portrayal comes with the sub-plot of the McCullough’s vs. Bebe Chow. We learn that Bebe conceived a baby girl under stressful circumstances, and that she found it difficult to care for the baby on her own, with very little experience or income. In a burst of desperation, she left May Ling at a fire station, where she was discovered, and then eventually taken in by the McCullough’s, a white, privileged couple who have failed to conceive a child of their own. Mia, in her time at the Richardson home, eventually deducts that baby Mirabelle is Bebe’s May Ling, and tells Bebe.
Bebe and the McCullough’s are thrust into a custody battle, where the McCullough’s are portrayed as ignorant, selfish people who insist that taking Mirabelle to Chinese restaurants is equivalent to educating her about her birth culture. The statements Mrs. McCullough makes on the stand are laughable and cringe-worthy. While I appreciate Ng’s attempt at exploring the questions of culture and identity, and of what makes a mother a mother, it was clear from the start that I was supposed to root for Bebe and not for the McCullough’s.
Throughout the two plot lines, I found there were too many points-of-view, and the omniscient narrator didn't really work for me. For example, Mr. Richardson's character barely registered, except for a couple of paragraphs where we are suddenly exposed to his thoughts.
Additionally, as a character-driven reader, I was disappointed to find that character development was sacrificed for the sake of the plot. We get to know each of the Richardson children, but their characters and their character arc are predictable and one-dimensional. I felt for Izzy, who is clearly the black sheep of the family. When I learned why Mrs. Richardson is so impatient with her, I had a better understanding of their dynamic, but failed to see why Mr. Richardson didn't step in on his daughter's behalf. The last several scenes left me seething, when Mrs. Richardson finally registers some sympathy for Izzy, but it's all too little, too late.
Finally, some scenes were just too coincidental and predictable to be believable: a mentor who dies right when she's needed; a computer left unlocked with the exact information needed readily available; a "knows-better" teen who ends up pregnant - and so on.
My review may seem like I didn’t enjoy the book at all, but I mostly did. It seems many of my peers absolutely love this book and that I'm in the minority. I wonder if, perhaps, I would feel differently had I read the book, instead of listened to it? Sometimes the narrator choice for an audiobook can make or break the experience.
There were several themes at play in Little Fires Everywhere, namely the complex relationships between mothers and daughters and the high wire of social conformity. Topics like sex, pregnancy and abortion from the teenage perspective, immigration and the treatment of immigrants, class stereotypes, and the consequences of (mis)communication, also lend pause to the reader. Celeste Ng is a talented writer, to be sure, but this particular act of story-telling fell a little flat for this reader.