Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste NgThe order of the small town on the riverbank
Forever at war with the order of the dark and starlit soul
—Adrienne Rich, “8/1/68”
The nonconformist has always been at war with the suburbs—Adrienne Rich was writing about it 50 years ago, and she surely was not the first. I can understand this dichotomy; I myself have certainly experienced suburbs where a high level of conformity seemed to be expected, resulting in a weird high-school atmosphere among grown adults. Still, you really don’t have to dig very deep to realize that things aren’t as black-and-white as they seem. There are all different kinds of people living everywhere, with varying degrees of happiness and fulfillment. All of which is to say, if you’re going to write on this theme now, you should probably have something new to add to the conversation, or at least a unique way of expressing it.
Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the planned community of Shaker Heights, where an artist named Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl move into a rental home after having lived a peripatetic existence since Pearl’s birth. The battle lines are immediately drawn: the nonconformist, creative Mia versus the staid middle-aged matrons of Shaker Heights. Mind you, these battle lines aren’t initially drawn by the characters, but by the author, who makes it clear that Mia is the moral center of the book. Characters who like Mia are the good characters; characters who don’t like Mia are the bad characters; and characters who are suspicious of Mia at first and then come around to liking her have experienced a redemptive arc. This would be less problematic if Mia hadn’t (view spoiler)[agreed to be a surrogate mother while in college, run off while still pregnant, forced her daughter to live a nomadic life in order not to blow her cover, and lied to her daughter the entire time, as well as keeping her from her grandparents and her biological father (hide spoiler)]. I was honestly horrified by Mia’s actions and I wasn’t brought around by the fact that she was an artist, or by the fact that she was allegedly the best mother since the Virgin Mary or whatever. But as far as this book is concerned, Mia is the real deal, an infinitely better person than all those Shaker Heights parents, who, let’s face it, are all kind of repressed. Being repressed is the real sin of suburbanites, you see. Nothing could possibly be worse, I guess. Oh, there’s also a subplot regarding a custody battle between a set of adoptive white Shaker Heights parents and the baby’s biological mother, a young Chinese immigrant, which could have been really interesting, but it’s given short shrift and is clearly meant only to underscore how amazing Mia is and how horrible the Shaker Heights mothers are in comparison.
Now look, I don’t expect any character to be perfect, and I did not expect that from the character of Mia. Obviously, someone in the novel needed to do something scandalous, or you’d have no book at all. What I don’t like is being told who to root for. I don’t like it when authors stack the deck. Just present every character in the fullness of their humanity and let me decide who I’m rooting for. If you’ve done your job properly, I’ll root for who you want me to root for anyway. But if you idealize one extremely flawed character at the expense of everyone else, you’re going to lose me. You’re going to make me side with a bunch of repressed Shaker Heights matrons I have nothing in common with, because those poor matrons never even had a chance at the end of your pen.
Okay, so the nonconformist versus the suburbs theme wasn’t handled in a particularly original or illuminating way here. It’s possible the book could have been redeemed by good writing, except Little Fires Everywhere doesn’t really have that either. The constantly shifting viewpoints didn’t work for me at all—and when I say constantly shifting, I don’t mean chapter by chapter. I mean paragraph by paragraph, and sometimes sentence by sentence. This results in some extreme awkwardness, as when every sentence in a paragraph is from the point of view of the character of Izzy, except for one sentence in the middle that relays a piece of information that Izzy doesn’t know. I guess an omniscient narrator is responsible for that particular sentence? In a few instances the omniscient narrator is even more obtrusive, reminding us who does and doesn’t know certain things that have just occurred from one character’s viewpoint. But beyond the awkwardness, so many characters are given a moment in the spotlight that I never really felt like I got to know most of them, and what we do know is revealed mainly through soliloquies and flashbacks, some of which are so long and involved that they derail the main story and quash any possible shot at narrative momentum. And let’s not forget the eye-rollingly dramatic and implausible plot twists that make it seem as if the author has watched too much Grey’s Anatomy. There’s the college student who can’t afford the year’s tuition, and because she’s (view spoiler)[“too proud” to accept a generous loan from her trusted mentor, and for some reason doesn’t want to seek federal loans, she decides to become a surrogate mother instead. Makes sense! (hide spoiler)]. There’s the character who is suspected of (view spoiler)[getting pregnant and then having an abortion, because she seemed to have gained weight, then vomited conspicuously, then by the next month had lost the weight. It turns out she had been stress-eating junk food (hence the weight gain), then got food poisoning (hence the vomiting), and then stopped eating due to stress (hence the weight loss). What a calamity of errors, am I right? (hide spoiler)] And then there’s the beloved mentor who is of course (view spoiler)[diagnosed with a brain tumor and given weeks to live at precisely the time she’s most needed. I guess at least it’s good that she doesn’t die in a car accident on an icy road—but that’s only because another character does fall victim to that cliche a few months later. (hide spoiler)] There’s just so much crammed into this book, but it all adds up to so little.
This is all very awkward, because a representative of the publisher offered me this ARC a few weeks ago and I enthusiastically accepted. I hadn’t read Celeste Ng’s previous novel, but I was under the impression that she was a good writer and I thought I would really enjoy this one. But I didn’t, and I have to be honest about it, because if I’m not honest about the books I dislike, I can’t expect anyone to trust my word on any book I review. Little Fires Everywhere seemed endless, it was pedestrian and tedious, and it just regurgitated stereotypes about the suburbs we’ve all heard countless times before. I initially thought I would give it 2 stars because, even though I didn’t like it, it seemed to me that the author had done what she’d set out to do, and I wanted to acknowledge that. But by the time I reached the end of the book, I’d changed my mind. It now seems to me that the author truly believes she’s written something deeply meaningful, and I know this sounds harsh, but I don’t agree. I learned nothing from this book and I didn’t enjoy the experience. There’s just no other way to say it.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng – review
Across social media, Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington have shared vague hints about their forthcoming series Little Fires Everywhere , based on the blockbuster novel by Celeste Ng, including a few peeks behind the scenes. From what we've seen so far, it's going to be the next Big Little Lies. The cast is stacked. Witherspoon and Washington will headline the series as rival matriarchs of the Richardson and Warren families. Joshua Jackson will play Witherspoon's husband. On Tuesday, June 11, Witherspoon released a first look at the two central leads. Their styling is pure '90s suburban glamour, and they perfectly capture the spirit of the characters.
There are the appeal and impossibility of assimilation, the all-consuming force of motherhood and the secret lives of teenagers and their parents, each unknowable to the other. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident. Mia Warren and her year-old daughter, Pearl, have also disappeared, vacating the small house they rented from the Richardsons. And so Ng again returns to the past for answers. Mia is an alluring Hester Prynne, a misfit nomad whose scarlet A might stand for Artist. If occasionally the story strains beneath this undertaking — if we hear the squeaky creak of a plot twist or if a character is too conveniently introduced — we hardly mind, for our trusty narrator is as powerful and persuasive and delightfully clever as the narrator in a Victorian novel.
Set in the s the decade is deftly pinned when the characters watch Jerry Springer , Shaker Heights is described as the sort of rectitudinous neighbourhood often portrayed in media versions of American suburbs in the s. Ng begins with the affluent Richardsons, after someone has burned down their house. The three older kids immediately blame the younger girl — the family nut job, who is conspicuously missing. Little Fires Everywhere is less about arson than babies. Ng constructs a three-ring circus, each subplot posing a moral quandary regarding an infant. Yet she began to form an attachment to the unborn child. Her family could afford to raise the baby, but a child would interfere with her forthcoming university education.
Celeste Ng: ‘It’s a novel about race, and class and privilege’
Sign in. Stars on the purple carpet at the Emmys decide which TV show characters would make great superheroes or supervillains , and more. Watch now. A member of the Westboro Baptist Church begins to question her involvement with the organization. An estranged couple reunite in a Florida police station to help find their missing teenage son.