*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*
Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Synopsis from Goodreads:
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors 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 teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community. When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
Celeste Ng has quickly become one of my favourite authors who is proving herself as an artist with the written word. In the same way that Everything I Never Told You tugged on heartstrings and confronted difficult topics and truths, Little Fires Everywhere tackles tough topics, deeply hidden secrets, and the reality behind a seemingly picture perfect city.
Shaker Heights is a city of perfection. A planned community, it has little tolerance for anything against the status quo, and the citizens that live there don’t want anything different. There is something to be feared, not admired, in those who seek something different. The Richardsons are the picture perfect family, meeting the status quo in every way. Elena Richardson leads her family to strive for perfection, not tolerating what she sees as rebellion. Her fear of losing her family and her picturesque life drives her need for perfectionism in herself, her husband, her children, and her community. In contrast, Mia and Pearl have skirted all concepts of tradition. Living a wayward life, they’ve spent the years of Pearl’s life on the go, setting down no roots and leaving no connections behind. Their world circulates around Mia’s work as an artist. They find joy in this freedom, but it also comes as a cost; they’ve never had a community to support them and no family to rally around them. They are outsiders everywhere they go, but especially so in Shaker Heights.
There isn’t a ton of action in this book, but it captivates with its complex exploration into the history of the characters as well as into their psyches. In many cases the reader gets a chance to have an intimate look at a character’s motivations, ideas, perceptions, etc. We come to understand why the people of Shaker Heights behave the way they do, even if they themselves don’t understand it. I actually found Elena Richardson to be one of the most interesting characters in the book. She fills more of an antagonist role as the book progresses. On the surface she is demure, collected, professional, and caring, but beneath the surface she is full of fears and anxieties. She is able to absolve herself of any wrongdoing because of her refusal to look introspectively and her denial of her true motives. Some reviewers see this as obliviousness, however I think it runs deeper than that. I think Elena is so talented at perfecting her appearance and and fitting into the flow of her community that she’s mastered the ability to push aside any feelings that are not conducive to her pristine lifestyle. Often times this puts the reader at a distance from her–a distance I think she’s trying to impose–but there are indications of her true motivations when her facade begins to slip as things become more out of her control.
Celeste writes with an ability to sway the reader one way, but over the course of a novel, completely convince the reader of something else. This allows her to introduce intense and complicated plot twists that constantly shift the reader’s perspective. Our feelings about the story and the characters shift throughout as more is revealed and things begin to unravel. This author isn’t looking for the happy ending. Instead she writes with brutal honesty, confronting the reader with tough topics and scenarios where things don’t work out. Her writing is true to life. Despite sometimes heavier themes, this story finishes with strength and a hope that like a phoenix, new life will rise from the ashes. The close-minded world of Shaker Heights is blown open, but with the possibility that things might improve, minds might be opened, and lives might be rebuilt.