Review: “Little Fires Everywhere”

A tv miniseries adaptation of Celeste Ng’s second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere” (her first a novel called “Everything I Never Told You” which won the Amazon Book of the Year award in 2014) premiered on Hulu in March. You may be familiar with the title because it was a friend’s first recommended quarantine binge. But if you hit fast-forward and watched the miniseries first, trust me when I say that the book may just be a more rewarding investment of your time than the series. The series is entertaining, but the book will leave you with a newfound perspective on how to transform the problems that surround you. It will teach you about how to apply an artistic vision to even the most unromantic and utilitarian aspects of your life. Ng’s capacity to take the commonplace and convert it into a more beautiful design, with something in her narration for all, is what defines her as one of our greatest contemporary authors, and too, the reasoning behind her ability to sell over two million copies of just two book publications.

More than a novel about the impact that the artist can have in quotidian existence, “Little Fires Everywhere” includes an investigation of motherhood, community, and the intersection of multiple cultures and racial backgrounds at the local level. The novel takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the 90’s, the first planned community in the United States, and where Ng herself grew up. Shaker Heights was an attempt at a utopia of sorts with virtually every feature of the community scrupulously arranged. When two of the main characters, Mia Warren a struggling mixed-media artist and her daughter Pearl, who live a nomadic existence, never staying in any one place for too long, arrive to find lodging in Shaker Heights, they quickly discover early clues to the puzzling nature of the town. Ng writes:

“Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house- renting, instead of owning- and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable.”

In this way Mia and Pearl, from the moment they set up light roots in the town, find themselves coerced into a mold of reality that is not only socially constructed but physically too. This unconventional single mother and daughter duo realize that forging an authentic existence, something that always came so easily to them, and what gave them their unique power, will be routinely challenged by an intricate web of threats and impositions enacted by the relationships that become the closest to them.

The threat that the Warrens compel on the delicate conventions of the inhabitants of Shaker Heights is precipitated in a fascinating way by a complicated custody battle between an underprivileged Chinese mother, who in an act of desperation gives her child to the state by placing her one snowy night on the steps of the town fire department, and the infertile mother who rescues her and claims the child as her own. The custody battle polarizes the inhabitants of the town as well as the relationship between the Warrens and the family who befriends them through a not so subtle combination of altruism, pity, and genuine curiosity. This family, The Richardsons, who the Warrens become intertwined with and grow close to, happens to be the personification of the ideal Shaker Heights community. This structural feature of opposites draws out the drama and the overarching themes of the book in a thrilling manner that abounds with hidden and apparent ironies, rich dialectical meanings, and culminates at the end with a stunning insistence on following the path of one’s singular design.

Ng’s satirical tone is more robust at some moments than others, and while she cultivates a generous respect for each of her characters, even Mrs. Richardson, the major culprit of the tragic thread of the novel, I would have liked to have more space in the narrative to reflect on the gifts the Richardsons gave to the Warrens, both tangible and intangible. While the obvious gifts are there: offering the Warrens an apartment at a discounted rent, the comfy suburban refuge for Pearl during the uncomfy experience of high school, offering Mia a part-time housekeeping job in their home, I think the last piece of this extraordinary puzzle of a novel would be giving insight into what elements of the Warrens experience in Shaker Heights contributed positively to their worldview.

“Little Fires Everywhere” is told with an observer’s distance that is far enough not to hold any character in too high or low an esteem but close enough to cast upon each character a glowing warmth; It is Celeste Ng’s tremendous aptitude for crafting character that really sets little fires everywhere, making the novel come alive and set out to do exactly what she wanted: to set little fires in us, her readers.

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