KR Reviews

On Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

New York, NY: Penguin, 2017. 352 pages. $27.00.

With her second novel Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng is garnering the kind of praise that greeted her highly awarded and New York Times best-selling debut novel Everything I Never Told You. In this latest tale about a new family who shakes things up in a quiet suburban town, we meet Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl—a transient artist mother and teenage daughter—who arrive in the affluent planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. The Warrens’ relationships with the different members of the local Richardson family, both the parents and their four children, form much of the focus of the book, but so too does a transracial adoption of a Chinese American baby by another white family in the area, the McCulloughs. The novel follows the complex social, class, and legal relationships between all of these individuals as we realize how much they judge one another, feeling certain in their own stance. Ng’s work reveals how perceptions and positionality that fail to consider other ways of seeing and living limit the relationships we are able to build.

We get to know many pairs of mothers and daughters: Mia and Pearl, Elena Richardson and her two daughters Lexie and Izzy, Linda McCullough and her newly named daughter Mirabelle. We also are able to unravel the story behind Mirabelle, born May Ling, and her birth mother Bebe. Each woman seeks a maternal figure either directly in someone else’s mother or indirectly as a practical and emotional mentor in one’s profession, as Mia seeks at art school. Amid these many models for motherhood, the reader must consider what a mother is supposed to provide in relationship to emotional support, access to opportunities, and a sense of belonging—and at what cost? These stories weave together to allow us to recognize the complexities of such connections.

The opening pages report the recent calamities in the town while the Richardson house burns down. The first line begins, “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer.” The words evoke a gossipy, privileged community with the town as the chorus, and this distant voyeuristic approach, similar to that employed by Jeffrey Eugenides in The Virgin Suicides, makes it feel as though the whole cozy town is sitting in observation and judgment. Even before these first words, this focus on class is set up in the two epigraphs. Both explain the historical Shaker Heights. It is a place “protect[ed] forever against depreciation and unwelcome change” as well as a “Utopia” where people have 800-person weddings and four-car families. The irony of the house ablaze in contrast to these advertised statements reminds the reader from the start of the exclusion of such an elitist place as well as the constraints on those inhabitants where the benefits of change are disavowed.

As the book develops, though, it isn’t just the place that we get to know but also its residents with their desires and their flaws. For instance, Elena Richardson thinks of herself as performing charity by renting out apartments in a house below market value to those like Mia and Pearl, the few that she marks as “deserving.” In addition to judging the worth of those with less economic support, she demands a certain submissiveness for this “favor.” The power dynamic subtly grows outside Elena’s full awareness but most certainly not outside of Mia’s, who knows when Elena offers her a job to clean the Richardson house “that when people were bent on doing something they believed was a good deed, it was usually impossible to dissuade them.” We also see issues of class at play for the younger generation as Pearl has to redirect a shopping excursion with the overly indulged Lexie Richardson to a thrift shop so that she can afford the clothing. In this instance, Lexie doesn’t negatively judge the place—or Pearl—as cheap but instead as a quest for vintage items, but she remains oblivious, like her mother, to the class-based undercurrent in their adventure. What Ng’s novel exposes here are not just the class issues but how those issues are received very differently depending on the perspective, whether it be noblesse oblige, tolerance, economic necessity, or an adolescent desire to be cool.

The importance of extending beyond one’s own perspective is then demonstrated through various artistic endeavors in the novel. The children are assigned to write fairy tales from different points of view—such as Rumpelstiltskin from his side of the story—and Mia in her art transforms photographs with her own adaptations. Elena sees one such print that she perceives as a dancing woman:

The film caught her in blurred motion—arms everywhere, stretched high, to her sides, curved to her waist—a tangle of limbs that, Mrs. Richardson realized with a shock, made her resemble an enormous spider, surrounded by a haze of web. It perturbed and perplexed her, but she could not turn away.

Elena, and the reader with her, questions whether we should view a woman who looks like a spider as threatening or empowered. Can we acknowledge, as in the art of Louise Bourgeois, that a spider is just as likely to be a protector as a predator? Do we doubt the perspective or the transformation?

These examples show that class is a key area for uncertainty of assessment, but so too are its intersections with gender and race, which, throughout this novel, limit the choices for education, marriage, work, or child-rearing, but also right and wrong. The benefits and detriments of each decision become increasingly unclear. What are our obligations to family and work? Whose voices do we consider when we think about the perspectives of a community? Ng’s work reveals the limits of such interrogations in the perspective of the residents of Shaker Heights.

Although Ng is certainly commenting on the difficulty for certain characters to be perceived as part of the collectivity of such a town, I wish that in a novel about multiple perspectives she had found a way for the reader to more directly hear from the characters of color that proliferate the story and the town, from the Warrens’ downstairs neighbor Mr. Yang to Lexie’s best friend Serena Wong to May Ling’s biological mother Bebe Chow to Lexie’s boyfriend Brian to the lawyer Ed Lim. Overall, though, this is a very enjoyable read about a town that thinks it doesn’t judge and yet is judging every step of the way. Little Fires Everywhere shows a particular place and time that makes us reflect on the limits of our own views and consider the spiderwebs of connection, conflict, privilege, and exclusion that we, too, create.

Abigail Manzella
Abigail G. H. Manzella's scholarly book Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Migrations was released in 2018 from The Ohio State University Press. She has articles and poetry published with the Rumpus, Women's Review of Books, The Millions, Bust, Ms., and Frontiers. Currently at work on a book of creative nonfiction, she has taught and written on contemporary American literature and culture, particularly as they relate to issues of space, race, and gender, at the University of Missouri, Yeshiva University, Centre College, Tufts, and the University of Virginia.