on September 7, 2017
Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned - from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours 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 principal is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren - an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons' friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family - and Mia's.
I haven’t had much luck with books this year, 2017 is rapidly drawing to a close and I can count on one hand how many books have been “5 Stars” and have truly made an impact on me. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, on the positive side it means I have more time to mull over a particular book, why it impressed me so much, why it resonated with me and if I’m unluckily enough to find another book that pulls me in so thoroughly as the handful that this year have by December’s end, I’ll take pleasure in having the time to think over the startling and fabulous LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng which is definitely top of my list of books read this year.
Meticulous in its description of the perfect, progressive, safe suburb of Shaker Heights, Ng crafts a world so wonderfully depicted you can’t help but feel drawn in, almost like Alice or Dorothy, at times you want it to envelop you in its perfection, its orderliness as you leave behind the chaos of your own daily life. At other times you wish to pick at its underbelly, like peeling the label off a bottle to uncover the truth underneath. In Shaker Heights following the rules is order of the day but as we discover it can blind you and allow a person to be complicit in crimes they never thought possible.
The Richardson family are quintessential 90s upper middle-class. Big house, successful parents, kids on the fast track to their choice of colleges, the “right” sort of people. Elena, matriarch of the Richardson brood has always followed the rules, always done what was expected, what was correct, never questioning the status-quo. When her new tenant Mia Warren, a single mother to Pearl, who lives a vagabond existence as an artist supplemented with temp jobs here and there, arrives in Shaker Heights, Elena and her family are inexplicably drawn towards Mia and her daughter. Elena with wariness that this woman could possibly be a threat to their quiet lives hastily invites Mia into her employ, a way to assert control over the woman. For the four children- Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy, the Warrens offer a fresh, new perspective to their carefully thought out lives. As these two unlikely families meld together, both sides find a connection they never thought possible. The careful peace threatens to shatter however when a custody battle over little Mirabelle/May-Ling pits Elena against Mia with potentially devastating consequences.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE is a character-driven novel and as a result more slow-moving and I absolutely loved that aspect to it. It allows the reader to truly get to know the characters and visualise them, their expressions, and their responses and truly “hear” their voice. Despite the fairly vast cast, I never felt like I couldn’t distinguish between them, their personalities so expertly crafted by Ng, their voices clear and distinct. I’ve mentioned before the excellent world-building and it truly was one of my favourite parts of the novel. The exploration of the city, the social classes, the tensions of race and status simmering, the naiveté of people’s perceptions as we’re looking back at a time when so many questions now being raised in 2017 were not even considered relevant by the mainstream and as one POC character says “we’ve always known” in frustration.
A powerful and fascinating story of the intricacies of human dynamics, with phenomenal writing and unparalleled character development with a sprinkle of nostalgia for those of us old enough to remember and questions put forth to the reader with care and gentle nudging to challenge your own perceptions, LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE is worthy of the hype and deserves the attention long after that may die down. Read it, buy it for a friend and tell them to do the same. This one is something special.