Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

There’s a lot packed into this book as the author explores the perfect suburban lifestyle of middle class America to examine race, teenage angst, and economic division.

The premise of the book hooked me. Elena Richardson, mother of four teenage children, journalist and wife of a lawyer husband lives in a middle class progressive suburb called Shaker Heights. Mia Warren, artist and single mother to teenager, Pearl, lives an itinerant lifestyle in the pursuit of her art until they decide to lay down roots in Shaker Heights in the Richardson’s investment apartment. When Elena Richardson’s best friend, Mrs McCullough tries to adopt a Chinese baby, a custody battle ensues with the birth mother which divides the entire community, placing Elena and Mia on opposing sides with unexpected consequences.

Shaker Heights plays an important role in this novel. “… had been founded, if not on Shaker principles, with the same idea of creating utopia. Order – and regulation, the father of order – had been the Shaker’s key to harmony.” I imagined a Stepford Wives, Desperate Housewives meets The Truman Show type of place – all perfectly in order.

The beginning is a jolt when we find out that Elena’s youngest daughter Izzy has set fire to the Richardson’s perfect suburban home. It’s not until the end that we get a sense as to why. In between, the life of the Richardson’s perfect family unfolds slowly until the second half when it ramps up with misunderstandings, resulting in twists and turns we don’t see coming.

The characters of Elena and her teenage children, Lexie, Trip and Moody are detailed although the teenagers seem to be typical of a movie cast. Mention of the difficult Izzy is sprinkled through the novel although at times, I had forgotten there was indeed another child – the one who had burnt down their house. What we do learn about Izzy is her mother’s fractious relationship with the girl which causes the teenager’s angst and rebellion. Yet Elena’s relationship with Izzy has more depth than with her other children for whom she barely gives any time.

Living a life with few possessions and little security, Mia and Pearl on the other hand have a beautiful relationship which is what draws Izzy, Moody and Lexie to Mia who gives them what Elena cannot. But Mia is far from perfect with secrets of her own.

Elena is comforted by the regimen of rules and regulations of Shaker Heights but her family’s intense involvement with Mia disturbs her so much that she breaks some of her own rules with disastrous consequences.

There is a lot to like about this book as it draws you into the bonds and rights of motherhood, friendships, unrequited love as well as middle class entitled attitudes. The males in the story are necessary props having little influence in what is going on.

I liked the author’s treatment of  Mrs Mc McCullough and her yearning anguish for a baby. The way race and class was dealt with, was clever as was the unfolding debate about the adoption of a Chinese baby. The white middle class view comes out brilliantly. “In the future we’ll all be able to look past race. You can just see what a wonderful mother she is,” one of the McCullough’s neighbours said… “You can tell that when she looks down at that baby in her arms, she doesn’t see a Chinese baby. All she sees is a baby, plain and simple.”

And the debate that a white wealthy couple are entitled to have a Chinese baby, instead of her poverty stricken Chinese mother, divides opinion everywhere picking off the scab to expose the ugliness of what racism can be, just because people can’t put themselves in the shoes of anyone else who is different. And this is the part of the book which I enjoyed the most.

However, there were some holes which bothered me and seemed almost too contrived as if to make everything fit nice and neatly to get to an end where you are left with questions. To reveal them would delve into spoiler territory but the motivations behind Elena, and in particular, Izzy was not quite satisfying and in some cases required a leap of faith to accept.

Little Fires Everywhere (which is a great title) is a very well written and easy to read book, digging deep and provoking thought about the middle-class suburban lifestyle. While I did enjoy this book, I didn’t love it. Would I recommend it? Yes, go ahead and check it out.

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