All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; 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. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled.
Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.
This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well. Of course, she’d had to give up a few things here and there….Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.
Remember, Mia had said: Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.
I almost didn’t pick up Little Fires Everywhere because I felt so burned by Ng’s first novel—Everything I Never Told You, which I read earlier this year. I loved Ng’s writing style and “complicated family” is a theme I will eat up. I appreciated the struggle she set up for Lydia and her mother, Marilyn. In that book, you know immediately that Lydia is dead and you spend the rest of the book backtracking to figure out why. The “why” is revealed in the final chapter, at which point I think I threw the book down. I felt manipulated and would rather have had an ambiguous ending where I didn’t know what I happened to Lydia. (As a side note, Everything I Never Told You would probably make a good book club offering precisely because the ending is controversial. I’m not going to recommend it otherwise because my feelings are still hurt; however, it is a book that will generate different opinions and big feelings, perfect for some bookish debate.)
But then Little Fires Everywhere came out and I remembered that even if I was mad at Ng for emotionally dragging me through the lake with Lydia, I really liked her writing style. I also want to make a point to read more authors of color. And she featured characters of color. And it would be nearly impossible for her to set me up for the same kind of disappointment again. So I bit the bullet and used my Book of the Month credit on Little Fires.
Thankfully my book gamble paid off. I enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere, including the ending this time.
Location, Location, Location
The book is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the first master planned community. While you usually hear of setting talked about as a character when the setting is atmospheric—foggy and wild—Shaker Heights is definitely its own character, though it is as far on the opposite end of the atmospheric spectrum as possible from “wild.” Shaker’s identity is defined by rules and boundaries, with strict zoning codes and housing regulations, down to the colors each home within a specific neighborhood could be painted. As one of the characters noted, the founding of Shaker Heights was based on “the underlying philosophy being that everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you avoided the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.”
Elena Richardson, the mother of four of the five children at the center of the book, has internalized the Shaker way to heart—she has given up on dreams and risk and lived her life solely within the boundaries. She is safe. She is as happy as she thinks she can be. It is against this foil that we meet Mia, wild and free, artist and mother of Pearl (literally). Interestingly, Ng has us met Mia through others—there is no chapter I can recall where Mia really talks about herself. Instead, we discover her character as she interacts with her daughter Pearl as well as Eleana’s daughters Lexie and Izzy. (Indeed, it is precisely Elena’s rules and structure that drives her own daughters to Mia.) We discover Mia’s past as Elena’s discomfort and internal outrage over Mia’s freedom (though Elena wouldn’t call it that) puts her on a destruction course to discover who Mia really is.
While Little Fires Everywhere isn’t a YA book, Ng’s other main characters were strong, well-developed teen characters. I loved Mia’s daughter Pearl—I loved that she was nerdy but was still able to get the guy. Her struggles and navigating of new friendships in town felt believable. She didn’t make all the wrong choices, nor did she make all the right ones—she was a good friend to some but made some choices that hurt others. She was an internally diverse enough character that there was something in her that it seems most readers could identify with—nerdy, shy, had friends, got the guy, hurt some people, had a complicated but loving relationship with her mother.
Eleana’s two daughters are opposites—Lexie is the high-achieving rule-follower in her mother’s mold while Izzy once tried to free all the cats at the Humane Society and gave all of the not-black clothing her mother bought her to the homeless the next day. This seems to be the way of things—kids respond to (overly) rigid boundaries in two main ways—some kids kill themselves to meet the standards while others chafe and rage against them. Yet here too, they are each believable characters—Ng does an excellent job making them multi-dimensional and not just tropes. While Izzy has been drawn to Mia from the start, when Lexie falls short of the standard, it is Mia to whom she turns, not Elena.
Under the main story line revolving around Elena and Mia is a subplot surrounding the termination of parental rights of a young, uneducated, poor Chinese woman and a rich white couple desperate to adopt the baby. Through existing friendships, Elena and Mia are pulled into this conflict on opposite sides, with the teenagers also splitting to take sides. This subplot, while creating conflict that enables Ng to flesh out Elena and Mia’s characters even more and set up conflict with the teen characters, also provides opportunities to make still salient points about race.
The lawyer for the Chinese mother Bebe scores points in court by pointing out that there are no Asian dolls in the rich couple’s house, though the reader also learns that this is because major companies like Matell have done a terrible job at representing anything other than the “norm” of whiteness.
Elena is able to think she is open-minded and not racist because she “doesn’t see race” which is another common completely unhelpful thing white people say. By not “seeing race,” Elena and the rich couple aren’t being good and charitable; they’re destroying part of the child’s identity. Whether you see race or not, it’s there. The question is whether the present diversity is recognized and celebrated rather than ignored, like a dirty little secret no one talks about. Elena is able to pat herself on the back for this and think she has no problem with race when it’s clear she does—she has a problem with anything that doesn’t follow the rules and highlights difference.
Shaker Heights itself also can’t have a problem with race since the town officially embraced integration, refused to allow racial covenants, and prevented white flight. Yet, even for all of this, we’re still told that Bebe’s lawyer was one of two Asians in his class and was expected to marry her by all his classmates since they “match.” While Ng’ first novel (set in the 70s) had more overt anti-Asian racism, Little Fires Everywhere features the microaggressions and assumptions still present today. While the tiki torches of Charlottesville have demonstrated that overt racism is clearly still alive and well, books like Little Fires Everywhere show us what “benevolent racism” still looks like in most places, even the most perfect of places.
While not as frequent as the commentary on racism, one of the other points Ng makes that hit home for me was about Elena’s “benevolence”—how she forced people to accept philanthropy they would rather not accept. So often, its easy for me as a well-educated white woman to think I know what is best and to thus foist myself onto someone, thinking I’ve solved the problem without listening or having the person themselves weigh in on what they actually need. Like discarded t-shirts in a third world country, benevolence is often far more about the giver than the receiver. Not terribly surprising, either, is the fact that Elena keeps score. Does it really count as benevolence if you’re always waiting for the opportunity to cash in on the favors you’ve forced people to accept over the years?
I love Ng’s writing style–it’s not overly flowery or showy (she refers to the fires set in the house as looking like they had been set by a “demented Girl Scout” who had been camping in the house), but you can tell Ng has honed her craft to find just the right words. The writing is relatable but polished, falling cleanly into the LitFic category as opposed to simply contemporary fiction. (Of course Amazon has it categorized as Women’s Fiction —what does this even mean?!?). Compared to the first novel, Ng’s writing seems to have found a more solid footing—she seems confident of her voice and so Little Fires Everywhere felt like a stronger read to me. I can’t wait to read what she comes up with next.
Published September 12, 2017 by Penguin Press (@penguinpress)
Author: Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing)
Date read: October 8, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ stars