Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere has been on a lot of lists since it was published so I was excited to get my hands on it earlier this week. The novel is about so many things, really, but generally tells the tale of a family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the Richardsons, and how they are each affected in strong and different ways by their tenants, Mia and Pearl Warren. The Warrens are nothing like the Richardsons have ever known in their progressive but rigidly-planned town, but none of the family members (save Mr. Richardson) can help but be intrigued (some to the point of obsession) by the quiet mother-daughter pair.
Elena Richardson is a reporter for the local press, and appreciates rules and order, right and wrong. She inherited a duplex across town and likes to congratulate herself on her magnanity by allowing tenants to pay super low rent if they seem deserving of just that extra leg up. Mia and Pearl are such a tenant. Mia is a single mother of a teenage daughter who is quiet but brilliant. Mia’s an artist so they’ve moved around a lot, but this time will be the last, so she has promised Pearl. Mia’s art is mostly photography with a little extra, and she works part-time jobs to cover necessities and then spends the rest of her days making art. The four Richardson children (Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy) eventually all meet Mia and Pearl and develop a relationship with one or both of them. Each child is different, but finds something they are missing in one of the Warren women. Moody is subtly and not so subtly developing his first major crush on Pearl. Lexie is fascinated by their lifestyle and asks inappropriate and oblivious questions, but later learns that someone just like Mia can be exactly what she needs sometimes. Trip is a jock and doesn’t expect to care about them but finds himself surprised when he notices just how pretty Pearl is. Izzy finds in Mia the mother she has always wanted – one that doesn’t criticize every move she makes, ignoring the flaws of her siblings along the way.
While Mia and Pearl are worming their way into the hearts and minds of the Richardsons, another couple, the McCulloughs, are experiencing their worst nightmare. The baby they have almost finished adopting legally from the state, little Mirabelle – the baby they have tried for a decade to have on their own – has a mother who wants her back. Mirabelle (aka May Ling) had been found at a fire station abandoned one night with a note to please take care of May Ling better than she could. Fourteen months have gone by since that night and the McCulloughs, Elena’s best friends, are fully prepared to do whatever it takes to keep the child they have grown to love. When Elena finds by chance that the birth mother happens to be a coworker and friend of Mia, she is furious. Who is this woman to interfere in her friends’ lives when she is so secretive and mysterious about her own past? Elena then sets forth on a mission to find the truth about Mia at whatever cost. The cost ends up being quite high.
I couldn’t put this book down easily. Naturally I had to – I have a kid, people have to eat, yada yada. But anyway, it was really engrossing. It takes place at the end of the Clinton era in the late 90s but the themes are not dated. We get a peek into lives that we probably all have lived or known in some way or another. Whether we’re a Pearl, an Elena, a Lexie, or a little of all three, it’s easy to find something of interest in most of the characters, especially the women. There are flashbacks, flash forwards, asides, etc., but I found the story easy to follow. I stayed up til almost 1am last night because I reached a point in the novel where I just had to know what happened. The writing is very vivid – maybe more so because one of the main characters is an artist. Everything visualized for me very easily. Not that I have a firm picture of any of the characters but I almost saw this from my own eyes, like a virtual reality movie or something. This novel is mostly about motherhood, and since I fairly recently took on that role, I think it helped add to my enjoyment. Not that you can’t enjoy this if you’re not a mother, not at all, just that I was more emotionally invested in the outcomes of basically every plot point. There are abortions, adoptions, post-partum depression, sort of kidnapping, parents disappointing children and vice versa. Reading this i was drawn to the Warrens much like the RIchardsons were, and I ended up finding Elena pretty repellant. I’m sure that might have been Ng’s goal, but then again maybe not. She isn’t really a bad person, but she becomes a desperate one and ends up shedding so much of herself when forced to share space with someone whose choices she finds so unnatural and disordered. I’m gushing. TL:DR, the hype is real people. Check this one out.