I finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere a few weeks ago. I spent all last week telling Mrs. Traum and Mrs. Thompson (our school’s media specialists) that I wasn’t sure this book deserved a Bago Book Talk Blog sticker. Yep … it’s a thing now! Here’s our logo:
As I go over my notes on this book today (at Mary’s Market; honey praline coffee FOR THE WIN!) I think this book does deserve our sticker.
I may not like every part of this book or the pace (I felt it was slow), but I’m not going to forget this book any time soon. It’s unique. It challenged me to rethink how I identify as progressive and accepting.
The masterful thing about Ng’s book is how she addresses racism, entitlement, white privilege, and prejudice in a casual way. I think this is difficult to do because it means the writer has to catch all of the subtleties of a character’s actions. She has to describe everything a racist character does that the character themself would describe as “not racist” . . . “It’s just the truth! I’m just being honest, not racist!” … apparently forgetting that the truth is oftentimes racist, prejudiced, or biggoted.
Little Fires Everywhere is about two families: the Richardsons and the Warrens. Elena and Bill Richardson proudly raise their children — Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy — in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shaker Heights, a real place as described and lived in by Ng, is a perfectly ordered (but friendly and accepting!) town where families are supposed to thrive without the urban oppression of nearby Cleveland.
Shaker Heights itself is a character of Little Fires Everywhere. I always love when the setting is alive enough to be a character and I believe Ng pulls it off.
When nomadic artist and photographer, Mia Warren, moves to Shaker Heights with her teenage daughter, Pearl, she decides to rent a house from Elena in their neighborhood. Moody quickly befriends Pearl, introducing her to his siblings and his parents.
As Pearl becomes more a part of the Richardson’s world, Elena — a local print journalist who focuses on human interest stories — becomes curious about Mia, who is secluded and withdrawn. When Pearl tells Elena about a photograph of her mother holding her at a local museum, Elena decides to keep Mia close. She invites her to become her housekeeper.
The juxtaposition between Elena and Mia is stark: Elena believes in order and rules and plans. Mia embraces messiness, seclusion, and spontaneity. The two women immediately distrust each other, even when they are unaware of their differences.
It bothers you, doesn’t it? . . . I think you can’t imagine why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose . . . . It terrifies you. That you missed out on something that you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted . . . . What was it? Was it a boy? Was it a vocation? Or was it a whole life?Mia to Elena, Ng 303
When Mia hears that Elena’s friends adopted a baby, abandoned at the fire station, she recognizes the baby as that of her friend from the Chinese restaurant she works at. Bebe, also an employee of the restaurant, had to surrender her baby to the fire station when she ran out of money. She started looking for her child as soon as she winds up back on her feet; Mia alerts Bebe to the fact that Elena’s friends — the McCullough’s — adopted Bebe’s daughter, May Ling. The McCulloughs — long struggling with infertility and miscarriages — rename the girl Miarbelle and lavish her with what they believe is a wonderful life and loving family.
What follows is a complicated legal battle that reveals the struggle of an immigrant trying to make it in a privileged, predominantly-white community that believes itself to be progressive, blissfully unaware of their privilege and the lack thereof for people of color.
All the while, Pearl becomes infatuated with the Richardsons. She adores their ordered, privileged lifestyle and imagines herself becoming a part of it. The youngest Richardson daughter, Izzy, in a parallel move, spends more time with Mia, fascinated by her artwork and philosophy. Each daughter gravitates to the mother opposite them.
When Elena learns that it is Mia who alerted Bebe to May Ling’s whereabouts, she launches an investigation into Mia’s past. Ironically, her investigation reveals just as much about Elena as it does about Mia.
Little Fires Everywhere reads like a painting. Ng paints these characters upon the intricate background of Shaker Heights. She relies heavily on description, but it’s engaging and clear, rather than vague and burdensome. The background of Shaker Heights is as interesting — if not more interesting — than the characters inside it.
The novel explores how a community believes itself to be one thing and projects that image to the outside world. But, Ng suggests, a community is never one thing. Neither is a human being.
The best example of this in the book is Elena. I perceived her as entitled, privileged, inflexible, and bigotted — which she often is. But you can’t help but empathize with her when she loses her home — and her daughter — to a little fire. (Note: That’s not really a spoiler. The novel begins with the fire and the fact that no one can find Elena’s daughter. We know she isn’t dead; she just disappears. The end of the novel suggests her whereabouts, so I won’t spoil that part!).
Ng’s point, I think, is that no one is reducible to a stereotype — not artistic Mia, not Moody the moody teenager (I see what you did there, Celeste!), not Bebe the Chinese immigrant, not the perfect suburb of Shaker Heights, and not even the privileged white lady, Elena. We can’t stamp anyone with a scarlet letter (the name Pearl is a The Scarlet Letter allusion that this English teacher truly appreciated).
I’m excited that Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, optioned Little Fires Everywhere for an eight-episode series on Hulu, slated for some time in 2020. Witherspoon will play Elena and Kerry Washington will play Mia! Witherspoon also made Little Fires Everywhere her Hello Sunshine book club pick back in September of 2017, which is how I first heard about it.
I’ll put my own sticker on this book at school; get past the fact that the story comes through in painterly description (Mia is an artist after all) and relish the characters and setting.
I challenge readers of this book to sit in discomfort when they realize all the little areas in their own lives where casual prejudice and bias filter through. Then, like Izzy, they can set fire to the prairies of their own biases; the ashes will fertilize what grows anew.
Just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way . . . . Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago, when we were in Nebraska. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.Mia to Izzy, Ng 295
It’s all right to be vulnerable, she had thought … It’s all right to take time and see what grows.Mia’s wish for the Richardson family, Ng 328
You can follow Celeste Ng on Twitter: @pronounced_ing
Follow Reese Witherspoon’s book club on Instagram: @reesesbookclub @ReeseWitherspoon @hellosunshine
Trigger Warnings: abortion; bullying; pregnancy; racism; fire