21st Century,  General Fiction

When America Thought It was Great: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng had been on my radar for some time before I decided to make it my Christmas book. My favourite Bookrioter Wallace Yovetich had been posting pictures of on her Instagram account, and other readers had also been praising the book for its portrayal of American suburbia.

Ng’s second book comes after the international success of Everything I Never Told You (2014), a novel about loss, trauma and family. I must admit I never got to read Ng’s debut novel, partly because I was not in a mood to read about family trauma when it was first released, and secondly because I never had the opportunity to browse the physical book in any bookshop. But with Little Fires Everywhere it was love at first sight. I loved the title and the promise of chaos brought to a middle-upper class neighbourhood by a single mother was too tempting to resist.

The novel takes place in Shaker Heights, a progressive neighbourhood in Cleveland where everything has been meticulously planned to fit the idea of a perfect, family-friendly neighbourhood. Mrs Richardson leads a pleasant life with her four children and her husband in a big house with four cars. She was born and raised in Shaker Heights and she is passionate about the small-town feel of what we soon learn is a secluded community.  Enter Mia Warren, an artist and single mother to Pearl, who will rent the Richardson’s spare apartment in the neighbourhood. Pearl quickly gets along with the Richardson clan like a house on fire (pun intended) and then chaos unravels.

All her life she [Mrs Richardson] had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scalated walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapdily; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch […] Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity.

The idea of having a bohemian single mother entering an idyllic American bubble was extremely appealing to me. It reminded me of Desperate Housewives, but Ng’s second novel is even more profound that the acclaimed television show. The author plays with the readers’ idea of American domesticity so embedded in Western culture that the story could very well be set in almost any time in the past fifty years. However, Ng subtitly drops some hints as to when the story is set and it could not be a perfect era in recent times: The Clinton administration. In the late 1990’s, America was economically thriving and the then scandal of Monica Lewinsky and the blue dress now seems meaningless in the light of the Trump administration’s tensions.

For Shaker Heights was indeed beautiful. Eveywhere lawns and gardens flourished – residents promised to keep weeds pulled, to grow only flowers, never vegetales. Those who were lucky enough to live in Shaker Heights were certain their was the best community in America.

Some people have criticised Little Fires Everywhere for its lack of diversity as the novel portrays a white community with the occasional Chinese immigrant doing underpaid work. However, I interpreted this portrayal as a critic on Ng’s part of how wealth is distributed in the US. It must not be a coincidence that Ng was born and raised in a Cleveland neighbourhood called Shaker Heights by her parents, two scientists who moved from Hong Kong to the US in the 1960’s where she graduated high school before being admitted into Harvard. I am not a big fan of using an author’s life – especially a female one – but I thought that taking into account the author’s choice for the name of her fictional neighbourhood it was justified just this time.

The book’s main characters are clearly Mrs Richardson, who we later learn is called Elena, and Mia Warren along with the children. The portrayal of teenage loyalties, even to adults, is uncanny and it brought back memories of those years in which we are learning who to trust while we are easily blind sighted by our superficial understanding of our friends’ lives. Issues such as teenage love, the importance of-of a comprehensive sexual education, and how we manage desire and life expectations are the main themes of the novel and if you neither an adolescent nor a middle-aged adult, it is very easy to find yourself gravitating towards both set of characters, which I thought was a luxury.

Art and the Humanities also play a key part in the narrative. Mia Warren is a freelance photographer who has been leading a bohemian life with her daughter ever since she was born. Their life must fit into their van, and their physical belongings play a small role in their lives. Hence, Pearl’s upbringing crashes with the Richardson’s lifestyle, carefully crafted by Mrs Richardson, which is rooted in a traditional idea of domesticity where her house is the centre of moral order. However, Elena’s identity relies on the illusion of her role as a mother, part-time journalist and wife to a successful local lawyer, and it comes crashing down when Mia arrives and questions the validity of Elena’s choices.

So, Little Fires Everywhere is an outstanding novel about the choices we make in life and the reasons that lead us to make said choices. Ng counteracts the depth of these issues with a light tone and a dark humour that will remind the reader that we should not take life too seriously and that other ways of living and being different to ours are possible and valid too. Quite a lesson for Trump’s America.




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