A few years ago on holiday, I read Celeste Ng’s extraordinary literary thriller Everything I Never Told You, a powerful story centred around a Chinese-American family living in Ohio, whose teenage daughter goes missing. Beautifully, and subtly written, it was less of a whodunnit than the painfully affecting story of a family, and their unspoken secrets. Needless to say, I was delighted to stumble across a proof copy of Little Fires Everywhere.
Little Fires Everywhere opens with the revelation that Isabelle, the youngest and most unstable of the Richardson family, has ‘finally gone around the bend’, and burned down the house. As the family watches the house burn, the story flicks back to the previous year, to the arrival of Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl, who rented a flat from Elena Richardson.
Mia is an artist, who flits around the country, staying just long enough to complete her latest photographic project, before leaving it all behind and settling elsewhere. But this is the last time, she has assured her daughter Pearl, who is desperate for stability. And when they arrive in Shaker Heights, Pearl is captivated by the Richardson family, and they equally by her and Mia. From Moody, the younger boy who falls in love with her, to the oldest daughter Lexie, whose simplistic and judgemental attitude could represent that of Shaker Heights, to Isabelle, the youngest, who finds long-sought after acceptance in Mia. But Elena, whose ‘guiding principal is following the rules,’ and who only rents ‘to people who she felt were deserving but who had, for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life,’ feels a direct threat from Mia’s ambivalence to their neatly organised, and selectively philanthropic lives. Nonetheless, they muddle pleasantly along until a custody battle breaks out in the town over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby by a white couple. Mia and Elena find themselves on opposite sides of the battle lines, and in retaliation, Elena sets out to solve the mystery of her tenant’s past – a decision which will have shocking and unforseeable consequences.
Shaker Heights, where the author grew up, is brilliantly drawn – far more nuanced than your average literary symbol of conformity. It’s a bastion of liberal progression, where rules are laid out for everything, from the colours you are entitled to paint your house, to the right way to take out your rubbish. A complacently self-satisfied community, it’s almost Stepford-like, if Stepford had a really good state school system and was quite pleased with its ‘post-racial’ status. It’s a society that Pearl, with few other reference points, is happy to be a part of, whilst Mia is much more suspicious of it. An undercurrent of danger runs throughout – we’re never allowed to forget that the story will end in flames but it’s also hard to actively dislike even the most destructive of characters – and I don’t mean Izzy here – as they’re all so well-meaning.
Little Fires Everywhere is a nuanced, thought-provoking, and breathlessly readable story, exploring what makes a mother, and whether making mistakes is a privilege. However, it’s also, often, wildly funny, with genuine laugh out loud moments, which lifts this already clever, thoughtful novel into a wonderfully enjoyable read. Wholeheartedly recommended.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ing is published by Little, Brown on 14th September.