Little Fires Everywhere
It took me a long time to read Little Fires Everywhere. Generally, I’m a slow reader, but this book took much longer than usual. I found myself putting it down and doing something else after nearly every chapter. Not because it was boring. But because it was so good, and I wanted to save it, savor it.
Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second book (her first, Everything I Never Told You, was a huge success and has gone straight to the top of my to-read list). Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the 90s, the story is centered around Pearl, the intelligent and adaptable daughter of an eccentric single mother named Mia, who is a photographic artist. Mia and Pearl are constantly traveling. They’re not wealthy, but they’re thrifty and creative with what they have. When they move to Shaker Heights, Pearl develops a relationship with the Richardson family, one of the most well-established families in town, and she is drawn to their opulent, stable, and seemingly wholesome family. The story reaches its apex when Mia and Mrs. Richardson find themselves on opposing sides of a controversial adoption case that threatens to tear the town in two. The controversy also threatens Pearl’s budding relationship with the Richardsons.
Little Fires Everywhere is, at its core, a story about motherhood, identity, and perspective. It felt like Ng was revealing, page by page, an elaborate and intriguing puzzle for me to sink my teeth into and solve. But there was no solution. There was no correct answer, just a lot of different perspectives, and varying consequences for varying actions. Ng had me conflicted at so many points because she showed me all the different viewpoints through an omniscient third-person narrative. Even though Pearl is the protagonist, I didn’t really fall in love with her in particular, because I saw things through the eyes of all the characters. Ng’s characters are complex, well-drawn, and believable. This is a huge part of what makes the book so good, not least because it helps convey the message that there are many sides to any story, and all of them are valid in some way. Ng takes this one step further with the idea of Mia’s photography, with her camera lens being a constructor of perspective.
Since Ng grew up in Shaker Heights herself, she has a personal perspective on the town. Ng describes writing about her hometown with NPR as "a little bit like writing about a relative… You see all of the great things about them, you love them dearly, and yet you also know all of their quirks and their foibles." I could sense the extra layer of intimacy Ng had with the setting when she was describing it – it was intricate and honest, simultaneously too normal and too strange to not be real.
Because our family moved frequently when I was growing up (by the age of 11 I had been in and around 15 or so countries and lived in five), I found that I related especially strongly to Pearl’s world of traveling all the time, and not being in control of that. I related to making friends and then having to leave them behind. I related to feeling like an alien in every new place because I was slightly different, and I came from nowhere in particular. So I resented Mia for constantly uprooting Pearl, and totally understood Pearl’s attraction to the stability of the Richardsons.
It wasn’t a page-turner. Like I said before, I had the self-control to put it down. So in that sense, it didn’t tug at my heart like some books. It was observant rather than emotional. Quiet rather than passionate. But it tugged at my mind; it intrigued me and it set the internet ablaze. Reese Witherspoon gave it especially high praise on her Facebook page: “To say I love this book is an understatement. This deep psychological mystery about two families in Ohio moved me to tears.” So much so that Witherspoon is currently working with Ng to create an eight-episode miniseries based on the book! Which, if you hadn’t guessed, I’m very much looking forward to.