This weekend we took a family trip to get cat food (because we are a family that goes together to get cat food?) and across from the pet store was a Chapters. So off we went to get pumpkin spice lattes and browse (because we are also a white, middle class family on a trip to the suburbs). The Starbucks line was too long, but there were plenty of books amid the sweaters and candles and stuffed animals. One of the tables was the “New Hot Fiction of Fall” and prominently displayed was Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. In fact there were only two copies left on that table, no doubt because everyone else already knows what I just discovered: this book is great. (Or more probably the publishers are doing a fine job promoting the novel. In fact I got this one as a review copy…).
Like it’s predecesor, Everything I Never Told You, this novel is a character driven family drama. Set in the 1990s (there are some wonderful references to the music of my youth), we follow starving-artist, Mia, and her daughter, Pearl, as they arrive in the planned community of Shaker Heights. Their arrival causes some upheaval for the Richardson family as Mia and Pearl differently insert themselves into the family’s life. Just like Everything I Never Told You, Ng’s second novel opens with the climax – in this case that the Richardsons’ youngest daughter, Izzy, has burned down the family house. The novel then moves back in time to explore why she has set this ‘little fire,’ and how the rest of the family might be implicated.
Wonderfully rich in character detail and relationship, through juxtaposing the two mothers, Mia and Mrs. Richardson, the book explores the tension between a life led following the unspoken and prescribed societal rules and a life led following passion and interest. In both cases the novel explores how the choice to follow or abandon a planned life causes pain for others, suggesting that our human characteristic of (in)advertenly hurting others is inescapable, what might be more important is how we respond when we realize we have caused harm.
In the children the novel is slightly more uneven in the development of characters. While Izzy both opens and closes the novel, she – unlike all the other children – doesn’t see a third person limited narration. Okay, that’s not true, Trip also gets a more surface rendering, though we do get a better sense of him through his relationship with Pearl. I suppose it’s a complaint of focus – if we are meant to understand Izzy’s actions both in burning down the house and in what follows, I wanted to see her in stronger focus. Except as I write this I’m questioning my initial reaction – perhaps this oblique and proximal development allows us to see Izzy as everyone else in Shaker Heights does: we misunderstand her, we misattribute her motivations, if we want to know her at all, we can only do so through her actions because she keeps others (and readers) at such distance. Fine, fine. I’ll accept.
This minor complaint aside, the novel is wonderfully engaging. The flashback to Mia’s 20s is one of the stronger sections in this regard, as we are both intensely interested in her past at the point at which the flashback occurs and because she is so fully realized. Likewise the adoption subplot presents a fascinating moral question that will (I’m sure) leave plenty a bookclub and reader in discussion.
Ultimately a novel celebrating the magic of art in allowing us to see and be seen, this one deserves its prominent place on the ‘New and Hot’ table and you’d do well to put your name on the list at the library as soon as possible. Or you can borrow my copy. Or perhaps you’ll end up at a super complex with pet food, diapers, bulk celery, a pumpkin spice latte and… this book.