Celeste Ng just raised the bar for everyone else. Litte Fires Everywhere
upended my expectations - not with a plot twist or anything so flashy, but about halfway through the story she's writing suddenly becomes clear. In talking about books with friends, or with people at the store, I realize I can be overly critical about the things that I read. Even with a book I enjoyed I'll find a nagging fault, whether its overuse of certain words, a clunky character, convenient plot devices, a problem with pacing - something - to the extent that I wonder if I can even find a book that is simply a pleasure to read. Reading Little Fires Everywhere
was like finally getting a good night's rest. The perfect read does exist, for me this was it.
The city of Shaker Heights, Ohio is proud of being a planned community and for its forward-thinking. Early civic action led to Shaker Heights homes being uniform in style and color without being monotonous, their schools are superb and the city enjoys a reputation for liberal reforms that mean Shaker Heights doesn't have the problems others communities face. The Richardsons are an large, affluent family who on the surface seem to embody the ideals of Shaker Heights. The novel begins with a house fire and the reactions of the family to the act and to each other provide an excellent foundation for their characters. The most mysterious and heart-breaking is the youngest daughter, Izzy.
The novel then turns back to a year or so before when Mrs. Richardson rents an apartment to Mia Warren, an artist, and her daughter Pearl. Long-time nomads, Mia is determined that Pearl should have a permanent home, but she can't quite settle into the rhythms of Shaker Heights. Pearl embraces what the Richardsons represent and she and Mia both become entwined in the Richardson's lives.
At the same time friends of Mrs. Richardson's are about to adopt the baby Chinese-American girl they've been caring for for 8 months - a baby who was abandoned and who seemed to be the answer to their prayers. The baby's mother, Bebe, reappears, explains why her child was left behind, and wants custody back and the community finds itself split between who has the right to the child.
Ng deftly talks about divisions between race and class in a community where such things are 'invisible' and compassionately writes about the complicated feelings and motivations of the Richardsons, the Warrens, Bebe and the other characters with effortless ease, peeling back years of resentment and hope and fear. The characters and their situations don't feel like examples or talking points, they feel real. I can't stop telling people about how wonderful this book is, I can't wait for September!