Celeste Ng seems to like to write books where it seems like they start with a mystery or crime scene, but the book isn’t really about the mystery. Things don’t get solved. People don’t get closure or absolution. You’re led to the end as a reader, but you feel just as lost as the characters surely do.
Here’s the summary bit from Goodreads: In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to 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, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who 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 mysterious past, and 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. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.
The characters in Little Fires Everywhere are complicated and their conflicts are even more so. There are parts of this book that made me properly anxious, reading helplessly as the characters formed assumptions about each other, and those assumptions crystallized into judgement, and life-ruining decisions were made to serve that judgement. The confidence they carried in their perfectly opposing convictions made everything they did justified and in the name of good, even though there might not have really been a right answer. It was a perfect character study of how nice people who mean well become so entrenched in their own belief systems and their own good intentions that they become more loyal to a side than to communal problem-solving. And because the nature of the conflicts was so heavy and impossible, it was impossible not to full-body cringe at some of the bullheadedness, insensitivity, and harmful impulsivity.
But all of that added up to a deeply compelling story, and one that made me feel like I had gained genuine insight into different human perspectives that would be valuable in my own life.