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.
WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG TO READ THIS BOOK???
Fun story: I finally caved into the hype for Little Fires Everywhere when my fries nearly burned down the oven this past Tuesday. I was, needless to say, scared shitless when I saw smoke covering the kitchen…
“Most of the smoke had gone, but a mugginess still hung everywhere, like the air in the bathroom after a long, hot shower.”
But, the day after, when I randomly decided to read the first chapter of this book, which has its premise set around a fire, I was swept into the world of these lively characters in Shaker Heights. (I’m still mad at myself for having to go through the above, in order for me to get fully into the storyline.)
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.
Celeste Ng breathes such livelihood into each and every one of her characters that I can clearly imagine them in my head, so much so that I have to remind myself that they only exist in this fictional piece of work. And it works so well because the author pays close attention to the tiniest of details that I wouldn’t have thought to notice at first, but then it’s those features that make the story feel that more tangible.
Take for example this introducing passage to the last (and the wildest) of the Richardson children:
“Izzy, at ten, had been apprehended sneaking into the Humane Society in an attempt to free all the stray cats. “They’re like prisoners on death row,” she’d said. At eleven, her mother—convinced that Izzy was overly clumsy—had enrolled her in dance classes to improve her coordination. Her father insisted she try it for one term before she could quit. Every class, Izzy sat down on the floor and refused to move. For the recital—with the aid of a mirror and a Sharpie—Izzy had written NOT YOUR PUPPET across her forehead and cheeks just before taking the stage, where she stood stock-still while the others, disconcerted, danced around her.”
I… love her.
I haven’t fallen under the spell of a family so entirely since I read Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin. Speaking of, if you liked the characterization in YJY, you’ll most likely enjoy this worthwhile read just as much. Also, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a prime example of exploring the dynamics of main and side characters and the threads connecting them all, just as this novel does so brilliantly.
Celeste Ng breathes so much humanity into her characters that the every day becomes compelling. And with each coming chapter, I became that more bewitched with these strangely compelling families.
“The truth was that she wanted to study the Richardsons both when they were there and when they weren’t. Every day, it seemed, Pearl absorbed something new from the Richardson family: a turn of phrase (“I was literally dying”), a gesture (a flick of the hair, an eye roll). She was a teen, Mia told herself over and over; she was trying on new skins, like all teenagers did, but privately she stayed wary of the changes she saw.”
I love how the author can capture such specific and private moments with a particular turn of phrase. These careful observations of her characters are enthralling.
There’s so much I want to discuss, everything from the enigmatic Mia Warren, “who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies”, to the complex and deeply intricate adoption case surrounding Mirabelle McCullough (“or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow”). I’ll just say on the latter that the heated debate that lasted for months in their community, continued on in my head (and out loud to anyone who was willing to listen) without pause.
“It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
The case really got my blood boiling and my head spinning, and I was so invested in the outcome of the court, that their final decision would have quite the impact on whether this introspective book was a 5 star read* or lower for me. And I see that as an immense success in my eyes because it’s rare that I get this overly invested and absorbed in a storyline. The author knows how to spin a web, and I would encourage you to experience it firsthand from the book.
“Something about the case had lit a spark in her, though she could not yet put her finger on it, and would not be able to articulate it for a long while.”
I still can’t fully wrap my head around all the intricate details Celeste Ng planted along the way. I truly applaud her for creating such distinct voices in each character. She played to her strength by giving the time and place to expand a character’s arc to fit into the overarching theme. And thanks to their extensive background presented without any bias, even those I came to disagree with, I still understood their point of view, their raison d’être, and their vehement fight to get people on their side.
“Here, she found, everything had nuance; everything had an unrevealed side or unexplored depths. Everything was worth looking at more closely.”
This novel is a prime example of succeeding at creating plot and tone through its multifaceted characterization. Which is why I’m also impressed that even though the main storyline didn’t appear until halfway through the book, the author kept up our interest with expertise on all accounts. It was a pure pleasure, watching her click everything into place.
All I wanted was to devour this oddly endearing book in all its glory, and in the same beat cherish it so it would last me forever.
Plus, I can’t stop thinking about how consumingly evocative and vivid the writing style is. The specificity of each sentence was very well woven together both by the storyline and the character development. It was bold, it had a purpose, and it didn’t feel aimless. Like this passage that paints a clear of picture how close the siblings are:
“You’d think she was the mother,” their mother had said once, half in tones of complaint, half in admiration.
They had their own words for things, a jargon of obscure origin: for reasons even they had forgotten, they referred to butter as cheese; they called the grackles that perched in the treetops icklebirds. It was a circle they drew around the two of them like a canopy. “Don’t tell anyone from France,” Mia would begin, before whispering a secret, and Warren’s reply was always, “Wild giraffes couldn’t drag it out of me.”
I wish I could explain in words how much I love Celeste Ng’s skill for capturing something so specific and addictively relatable.
And another utterly enchanted passage on mother/daughter bonds that’s worth the lenghty read:
“It had been a long time since her daughter had let her be so close. Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less. As a baby Pearl had clung to her; she’d worn Pearl in a sling because whenever she’d set her down, Pearl would cry. There’d scarcely been a moment in the day when they had not been pressed together. As she got older, Pearl would still cling to her mother’s leg, then her waist, then her hand, as if there were something in her mother she needed to absorb through the skin. Even when she had her own bed, she would often crawl into Mia’s in the middle of the night and burrow under the old patchwork quilt, and in the morning they would wake up tangled, Mia’s arm pinned beneath Pearl’s head, or Pearl’s legs thrown across Mia’s belly. Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses had become rare—a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug—and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”
I feel the truth of these words echoing inside me. And it goes to show how parts of Little Fires Everywhere made me emotional to the point of crying and they weren’t even sad, just so absolutely stunning.
It’s been so long since a book evoked such a wide range of reactions out of me. But this multigenerational tale of family bonds, youthful romance, generational conflicts and hidden secrets had me compulsively turning page after page. I haven’t felt this strongly about a book in nearly half a year (back when I read The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi). This thought-provoking read in all its messy complexity will stay with me for a long time to come. And in the meantime, I’ll be devouring all the other books the author has released so far.
*Oh, who am I kidding? This book deserves all the stars in the sky.