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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

BOTTOM LINE: Extremely well-written and fascinating story

Genre: Literary Fiction
Publication Date: 12 September 2017
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“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.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.”

My Thoughts: Little Fires Everywhere is a beautiful story of motherhood as well as one of identity. In addition, it touches on the power of the status quo and the complacency that comes with middle class. It is a powerful story, and one that has resonance for today’s political and socioeconomic turbulence. Through Mia and Elena, Ms. Ng brings both sides together to show that seldom are things as simple as they seem.

Little Fires Everywhere is one of those novels that forces you to take a long, hard look at yourself and your background, for people from different backgrounds will have decidedly different reactions to the story. I personally found myself squirming a bit at Elena’s portrayal with her upper-middle class lifestyle and views of the world. While my community is not as well-organized and planned as Shaker Heights, there are too many familiar attributes between Elena’s life and mine for comfort. While there are no villain and no hero in this story, my reactions to Elena’s actions and thoughts were mostly one of repugnance. Yet, our similarities make me wonder if I would/have/will react similarly in such a situation as she finds herself. Other readers may see themselves in Mia or in one of the other female characters who have a prominent feature in the story, and their reading experience will greatly differ. The beauty of the story is that there are multiple points of view and multiple lessons to learn, all of which depend on our individual backgrounds, experiences, leanings, etc. to determine.

The story itself is dramatic but relatively action-less. It is a thinking person’s story, driven by the characters rather than a specific plot. In that way, the characters take on a life of their own, drawing you into their personal dramas and making you a part of the story. For, it is utterly impossible to stay a remote observer of the story. There are one too many polarizing topics at play throughout the novel, and the strong emotional connections you feel towards at least one of the characters guarantees that your response will be anything but calm.

At the same time, Ms. Ng never allows readers to lose sight of the big picture. While it would be so easy to remain in Pearl’s corner or in Elena’s, she captures the complexity of life so well that you recognize (albeit somewhat reluctantly) that your reactions are one-sided and therefore shortsighted. She forces you to acknowledge that there are seldom easy answers when it comes to parenting, to the ideas of motherhood, to life.

At a time in our country where it seems that everyone is pitted against everyone else, Ms. Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is a reminder of how things could end up if we don’t stop and consider the other side’s viewpoint once in a while. Her story emphasizes how unwilling most of humanity is to empathize with one another, and yet only when we do can we ever hope to find common ground. Mia and Elena are great examples of the dangers of self-righteousness at someone else’s expense. In this quiet, exquisitely written novel, there are no winners in this dangerous game of right and wrong, which makes its lessons not only timely but essential to overcoming our growing national divide.

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