Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel by Celeste Ng.
Penguin, Penguin Random House, my edition 2019 (originally published in 2017).
Fiction, 338 pages plus Reader’s Guide.
Lexile: 1000L .
AR Level: 6.8 (worth 18.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a work of fiction although I’m not posting it on Fiction Friday.
A tense novel about the unexpected connections between two families, which change all of their lives.
Well. Sometimes I hesitate to review a book because it feels like everything there is to be said about that work is already out there. While I don’t mind reviewing popular works, especially if my opinion differs vastly from the usual, sometimes it simply doesn’t seem like there is much for me to add to the discourse. That is the case with this novel, which seems to have been generally well-reviewed, and which I generally agree with other reviews I’d seen prior to reading the book.
Little Fires Everywhere is an incredibly page-turning, intense novel about the connections that unfold between two families. The Warrens are a mother-daughter duo intensely bonded but also isolated by their frequent moves and struggles to get by. The Richardson family has six members: Mr. Richardson, who is largely at work and misses everything, but feels a growing dissatisfaction with his outwardly perfect life. His wife Elena Richardson is one of the major characters and will resonate with those who have been following recent events as an Amy Cooper type personality – believing in progress and equality from a very privileged, white-savior mentality that ultimately causes her to work against the very progress she espouses. Elena is the driving force behind many aspects of the novel, including the Warrens coming into the Richardson’s lives and the circumstances of their leaving again.
The Richardsons have four children, each just a year apart. Lizzie is the oldest, a confident, self-assured young woman who sees the world as her oyster. Junior Trev is sports-minded, handsome and thoughtless. Moody is the same age as Pearl, a sophomore who feels out of place with his family yet ultimately always falls in line with them. The true outcast is youngest child Izzy, who can never quite do things the way her mother would like and is finally sick of trying.
There are many other characters, from teachers at the children’s school to a waitress at the diner where Mia picks up shifts, an old college friend of Elena’s, a lawyer Mr. Richardson knows, the other tenant in the Richardsons’ duplex, and so on. The book is set in 1996/1997, when colorblindness was still widely thought of as progressive, yet the themes are still relevant today.
Although the visual media adaption has depicted Mia and her daughter as Black, the book does not cue them as a specific race and Ng has mentioned that she ended up choosing to portray them as white. Hair is described as brunette and in braids, which could fit many different women. According to interviews, Ng decided to not portray them as a specific ethnic group because she felt she was not the right person to portray a Black woman’s experience.
She does draw on her own background for a number of poignant minor characters. In particular, there is one section on Asian-American heritage that was simply perfect. (Pages 258-267 in the paperback edition or the second section break in Chapter 16, if you’re wondering.) As the characters talk about first dolls, then books, I kept nodding and agreeing. The ending of this line of thought, on page 267 of my edition, was simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating which remaining all too real.
Another storyline that I feel the need to mention (although in the vaguest of ways since the plot twists so often so quickly and I’d like to avoid major spoilers) is adoption. Specifically, adoption, surrogacy, custody issues, biology versus legal right, maternal versus paternal rights, surrendering of a child for adoption, poverty, postpartum depression, feeling of belonging, or not, in a family.
There was so much around adoption and written so well, that I wanted to mention it both as a warning to those who might be triggered by the sudden introduction of this content in the second half of the book and as a recommendation to those who seek books with adoption specific content. Since this is a work of fiction and, if not exactly a light read, certainly a gripping one, it might also be a useful way for some to introduce these topics with friends and family members.
This is an adult book and has adult content such as sex scenes, graphic language, crimes, abortion, miscarriage, surrogacy, both legal and illegal adoption, moral dilemnas, sudden death, misogyny, invasion of personal privacy, and as the title indicates, arson. However, mature teens could probably read it without a problem as it isn’t any more salacious than most YA and certainly has ample space for discussion.
I can definitely see why this has been so popular as a book club choice – there is so very much to discuss and it’s a page turner as well. I was highly impressed with Ng’s writing and will be picking up her earlier book, Everything I Never Told You, when our local library reopens. Recommended.