A few posts ago, I listed out my May to-be-read, which included Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I’ve been dying to read this novel for months, so when I finally had some down time I immediately reached for it. I finished it today and wow. I loved it for so many reasons, which I want to share without giving too much away.
When I first read the dust jacket flap, I wasn’t sure how all the various storylines would develop and intersect. In truth, I was a bit skeptical. It seemed like Ng was attempting to cover a lot of ground and I was worried character development might suffer. The summary is as follows:
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads to the colors of the houses to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster or heartbreak.
Now that I finished the novel, I can say that the characters were developed in subtle, but poignant ways. I saw a few reviews that said the characters felt one-dimensional, but I feel like if people felt like that they missed the subtlety that was operating within the story that was continually moving characters forward. Each of the children developed as much as appropriate for the overarching story, which is ultimately a story of motherhood and what it means to be a mother. The novel poses a question: is motherhood love, biology, or an unexplainable mixture of moving parts? By the end of the novel, what motherhood isn’t answered by Ng, but I think the readers’ reactions to the major plot points in the work can answer this question implicitly.
My biggest critique of most books I’ve read recently is pacing. The book either gives too much backstory upfront to the point of feeling gratuitous or falls short of having an actual plot (sometimes it feels like you read 300 pages only to find nothing really happened — for example, The Nest, which took me so long and left me wanting). The pacing of this novel felt just right. Certain information came when it seemed most appropriate, we went back in time to understand how much the past informed the present, and we looked forward, to see the enduring fallout of the events in the story we gained access to in this novel. I also liked that the first chapter opened with the burning of the Richardson home because I was immediately hooked and I feel like the characters’ reactions to the fire felt so accurate, but in a retroactive way. For example, some comments felt a little unconventional in that first chapter, but by the novel’s close you can’t help but think “but of course that’s how Lexie or Moody or Trip reacted.” Ng isn’t frivolous with characters. She takes on each person and explores their motivations, their pasts, and how they came to be where they are in 1997 when the novel takes place. In fact, I liked that Ng rooted a lot of character development in characters’ past decisions. This felt so authentic because, in many ways, our futures are defined by the decisions we make, the lives we choose, the reactions we have to formative events, and the times we left things behind, never to look back but always to wonder what could have been different if we chose differently.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of motherhood within the novel, something that most struck me was the perfectionism and how judgments we make about others can be turned on their head by our own mistakes. I think the juxtaposition of Mia to Mrs. Richardson is so interesting because they parent so differently, and yet they both just want to love their children and give them opportunities and good lives. I also love how certain characters are quick to judge others’ actions until they’re put in a position that forces them to look those judgments in the eye and level with them, perhaps responding to the situation in the exact way that, if they were a third party outsider, they would judge very unforgivingly. There are some cringe-worthy moments when people are so judgmental, but in all honesty, they are things I think people often say behind closed doors, and that should have a little light shined on if only to make us pause and think, “is that what I would say?”
I will say I was a bit sad about one aspect of the ending, but it’s hard to explain why without giving away too much. So, I will just say I wish I had a bit more closure with some characters, but I still really enjoyed this read and I definitely recommend it!
Up next, I’ll be reading The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah!