A disclaimer for this review should include the fact that I absolutely adore Celeste Ng as a person (please go check out her Twitter feed), and I loved her first novel, Everything I Never Told You so much, I taught it to my AP Literature class two years ago as their “introductory” novel. All that said, let me share why love her amazing new novel, Little Fires Everywhere.
Yes, I know this review is “late,” and for that I apologize. But when a school year and grad school session start on the same day, life is never easy.
At any rate.
As I wrote on Goodreads when I first finished the novel, Celeste Ng, again, shows us her deep understanding of families, relationships, and emotions. With its examination of all of those things, interwoven with Ng’s insightful commentary on privilege, Little Fires Everywhere wrecked me and made me whole all at once. How very like life.
That, though, while accurate and true, is an oversimplification of the novel and all it achieves. Ng closely examines her fictionalized version of Shaker Heights and “the underlying philosophy that everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous” (11). Elena Richardson—referred to most often as Mrs. Richardson to emphasize her distance not only from the reader, but her own family—serves as a living, breathing representation of the philosophy of Shaker Heights. Her whole life, planned out so explicitly from high school to college and then on to marriage, kids, and career, mimics the attempt at control of most planned communities, not to mention the desires of those that live in them. She wants, especially, to manage the life of her youngest, Izzy. Their complicated relationship forms a majority of the story, but there is also so much more.
Mrs. Richardson also embodies—literally and figuratively—the “noble calling” of noblesse oblige, or, in other words, white privilege. Little Fires Everywhere was, of course, written before people actually talked about the idea and problematic nature of white privilege, but still, Elena sees her career in journalism as “one where you could do good from within the system” (109). Mr. and Mrs. McCullough serve as both foils and complements to Mrs. Richardson’s ideas about their privilege being a noble calling. They decide, after many failed attempts at having a child, to adopt. In a turn of events that Mrs. Richardson deems “providential,” the McCulloughs receive a call from a social worker “saying there’s been a little Asian baby left at a fire station, and by four o’clock in the afternoon there she is in their house” (123). But, of course, as the McCulloughs decide on a name for their new little girl, “it had not occurred to them, then or any point until [Izzy points it out to them], to regret the loss of her old name” (125). Both the Richardsons and McCulloughs, steeped in their own privilege, never look, to borrow a phrase from Mary Poppins, past the end of their own noses. There’s much more to discuss regarding privilege and race in the novel, including the fact that Moody Richardson tells his sister, “Everyone sees race…The only difference is who pretends not to” (46), but that’s another blog post altogether.
Along with privilege, an undercurrent in the book is mother-child relationships, specifically the mother-daughter relationship, and the secrets we all keep from each other in both aspects of that relationship. My mother still, after years of us having a very good relationship, doesn’t tell me everything, just as I never tell my daughter everything. As I told her recently, “The things you don’t know about me could fill a book,” and I suspect the same is true of me and my mother. But. Ng touched beautifully on the one thing that is true in many mother-child relationships:
“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once” (132).
This stunningly written comment—and others like it—about the beauty and reality of mother-child relationships are what prompted me to say that this book is so “very like life.” Because as much as there is beauty in those relationships, there is also self-doubt, rage, and sometimes, brokenness. As Ng comments later in the novel, “It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” Of course this question refers to Mrs. McCullough’s adoption of a child not biologically her own, but the reality is that it applies to every mother-child relationship, whether adoptive or biological. Biology alone does not a mother make, nor does biology, in every case, make a mother. So many of us know this, whether through experience, observation, or a combination of both. Motherhood, though, is always inextricably linked to the idea of love. Do we love enough? Do we love too much? Do we love the right way? And what happens when the answer to any of these questions doesn’t fit somebody’s expectation for what a mother should be?
It’s in this way of thought-provocation through storytelling that Ng truly claims her reader’s attention. As with Everything I Never Told You, the characters in Little Fires Everywhere all believe themselves safe as the center points in their own orbiting systems. The McCulloughs believe in their “right” to be adoptive parents, especially after their personal difficulties. Mrs. Richardson fails to see so much happening around her in her own family, while Mia and Pearl Warren—apparent models of what the mother-daughter relationship should look like—pull her center of gravity away from her in more ways than one.
One last NB: I loved the setting, and how Ng transported me back into the 90s and my own teenage years. Her creating this playlist was, for me, the icing on the cake of reading such an authentically thought-provoking novel.
About Celeste Ng:
Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You,which was a New York Times bestseller, a New York TimesNotable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and named a best book of the year by over a dozen publications. Everything I Never Told You was also the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the ALA’s Alex Award, and the Medici Book Club Prize, and was a finalist for numerous awards, including the Ohioana Award, the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award, and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.
Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She graduated from Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times, One Story, The Guardian, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award, the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Currently, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is out now from Penguin Press.