In the placid, progressive suburb of Shaker Heights everything is meticulously planned, from the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson.
Mia Warren, an enigmatic artist and single mother, 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 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. Mrs Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.
I had been meaning to read Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng forever, obviously. Everyone said it was amazing, then the Amazon adaptation was coming starring none other than Olivia Pope herself, AKA Kerry Washington, who I would watch doing pretty much anything, to be honest – and somehow I still had not gotten around to it. So it was very fortuitous that back in the early days of lockdown when I was making my weekly 7am trip up to the Co-Op, one of my neighbours had kindly included it in the box of ‘free – please take’ books placed their gateway.
Don’t mind if I do.
I read the book and then watched the show (which I loved), so the two are a little intertwined in my head, but I will do my best to stick to the Ng-only version for the purposes of this review. (Though if you did watch the show, how good was Reese Witherspoon!? I never thought I could be revolted by Reese but she pulled it off).
Set in 1990s America but with a feel that is utterly contemporary, Little Fires Everywhere is, as the title suggests, a tinder box of a book. Dual tensions of race in so-called liberal white suburbia rub up against issues of class and bohemian verses traditional lifestyles to produce a novel that is simmering – with resentment, tension, sex and rage. Though they don’t speak of such things in a place like Shaker Heights, of course.
Celeste Ng captures so much in this novel, casting a merciless eye over the failings of the liberal middle class who consider ‘colour blindess’ a virtue. She examines the unacknowledged white privilege driving the Shaker Heights community with the heart-rending tale of Bebe Chow, a Chinese woman fighting for custody of her child, who was adopted by a local couple after Bebe abandoned her in a moment of poverty-driven despair. The custody battle splits the community down the middle, with Elena and Mia at the heart of the conflict. The case raises many questions the residents of Shaker are entirely unprepared to face: does motherhood lie in the love or in the blood? Does the race matter in adoption (why did her adoptive parents change her name from May Ling to Mirabelle?)? Are we setting up certain mothers – single mothers, mothers who aren’t white, aren’t American, aren’t wealthy, perhaps aren’t legal citizens – to fail? Ng leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
At the same time as all this, the complex entanglement of Elena and Mia’s families shows the sometimes destabilizing effect of confronting a lifestyle entirely different from one’s own. Shaker has always been Elena’s plan. The husband, the house, the brood of photogenic children was what she was working toward, but the sudden arrival of Mia, a nomad, an artist, the apparent embodiment of freedom from all those things women are socialised to strive for, throws it all off balance. How do you respond when faced with an individual living all of the decisions you chose not to pursue? Elena opts for rejection and suspicion – and Mia returns it in kind. For their children however, it’s an entirely different story. It’s funny how when you’re a kid it’s much easier to see a different lifestyle as a possibility rather than a threat – it’s a feeling we should all work harder to hold onto as we grow up, I think. Little Fires Everywhere evoked more than anything I’ve ever read that feeling from childhood of that one friend’s house that feels like stepping into another world – their family so fun, so pretty, so lacking in all of the complexities and frustrations that make your own so annoying. The family you want to join, at whose house sleepovers are elevated to exploratory missions, data gathering for previously unknown possibilities. Both Pearl, Mia’s daughter, and Elena’s kids feel this way about each other. It’s a feeling I’d forgotten, and revisiting it was a nostalgic joy.
Little Fires Everywhere is complex and utterly gripping. Read it. Then watch the show. They are both challenging, nuanced and truly excellent experiences.