My name’s Maria and today I’m here to finally talk about “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng.
“Little Fires Everywhere” is Celeste Ng’s second book, following “Everything I Never Told You.”
It’s another domestic drama about a photographer named Mia Warren and her high school age daughter, Pearl. They constantly move from one place to another, but they’re hoping to lay down roots in Shaker Heights.
Shaker Heights is a suburb in Ohio. It’s known as a “planned” community, and there are rules and regulations about everything, and entire committees put into place to make sure citizens follow these rules.
Mia is renting space in a small duplex from the Richardsons, who are your typical ultra white, lavishly rich, mega privileged wonder bread family.
There are four Richardson children, and Pearl immediately befriends one of them named Moody, and she starts hanging around the Richardson house a lot.
The youngest Richardson, Izzie, becomes enamored with Mia’s work and volunteers to be her assistant, while Mrs. Richardson, fancying herself a generous person, insists that Mia come work a few days a week as their housekeeper, just to make sure she can make rent while still pursuing art.
And things get more complicated when one of Mrs. Richardson’s best friends tries to adopt a Chinese baby, May Ling, and Mia happens to know the biological mother through her second job.
And once she passes on what she knows, a fierce custody battle ignites.
“Everything I Never Told You” is one of the absolute best things I’ve ever read.
I was eagerly awaiting Ng’s sophomore release for YEARS, and let me tell you, this one did not disappoint.
I think what I like most about Celeste Ng’s books is that none of her characters are unknowable; each and every one of them is capable of being known.
When she first introduces you to her characters, she focuses your attention in on the easy stereotypes, on the ways you can immediately write these people off. And then slowly, as the story progresses, she chips away at each character and forces you to realize that they’re all coming from someplace.
These people don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re not easy to dismiss because they all have full lives and full histories. They all have moments and people who shaped them into who they are today.
It’s also great the way the story explores the dynamic between parents and their children.
There’s children who are seen as objects, possessions, trophies, physical markers of success, and there are children who are allowed to discover their own agency and learn to make their own mistakes, as terrifying as that is.
There’s a lot of talk about how parents feel a sense of ownership over their children, how that can be confronted in a productive way and how it can quickly turn toxic.
And I love the parallels between how the Richardsons and Mia both have teenagers who are rebelling, bucking up against the rules, testing the limits, and we see how these different parents deal with their “control” over their children slipping away.
But also how this Chinese baby is at a point in her life where everything she does is entirely in the control of other people. She can’t speak for herself.
So you really see how control and ownership over children fluctuates from storyline to storyline, and how these ideas are often subject to change as life progresses.
The story also centers this discussion about what you deserve, what you are “owed,” especially in relation to following the rules or doing things the quote-unquote “right” way.
The citizens of Shaker Heights, especially Mrs. Richardson, place a special value on following the rules.
There’s this idea that if you keep your lawn certain height or plant a tree on every curb, you will actually ascend to the height of personhood.
To them, there’s a clear cause and effect.
If you follow the rules, you deserve success, you deserve the right to run your life and your family as you see fit.
If you DON’T subscribe to these rules, if you’re interlopers like Mia and Pearl, who live paycheck to paycheck and scrounge up mismatched furniture from the secondhand store, who sleep on mattresses without bed frames, then you forfeit your right to privacy and peace, and it’s open season for calling your decisions and lifestyle into question.
We all like to think there’s a right way to get to where we want to get, but in reality, as Mr. Richardson says, rules imply that there’s a right way and a wrong way, when in practice there are really just ways.
So many ways.
And it’s not for us to say which way is less.
Going off that, the story really emphasizes how women, especially, are most subject to relentless scrutiny, and even more so when we’re talking about mothers.
One of the most poignant moments in this story for me was this brief exchange between Mrs. Richardson and her two daughters, when she’s having The Talk with them and says that childbearing, the possibility of becoming pregnant, is one of life’s most serious responsibilities, and Izzie corrects her by saying, “You mean vulnerabilities.”
I think that’s one of the realest things I’ve ever read.
People who are read as feminine, people who are capable of bearing children, their mistakes are held under a microscope.
Everyone’s waiting for them to fail, and once they make that mistake, it’s like their credibility, their validity as a human is shot. It’s a losing game.
For people like The Richardsons, or even their friends trying to adopt May Ling, people who’ve done everything “right” in life, their fitness as a parent is a given, they have a right to their dignity.
For someone like Bebe Chow, May Ling’s biological mother, a Chinese immigrant caught in a system that devalues immigrants, who doesn’t make a lot of money and who didn’t have access to many financial or emotional resources as a new mother, who left her child at a fire station, which allowed her to finally get attention for her physical and mental health, she has to find a way to actively prove her fitness as a parent.
And I think that just speaks to the systematic privileging of white people.
If you don’t fit that mold, you’re starting way behind the curve, fighting ten times harder just to reach the starting line.
Even if you make no mistakes, one mistakes, many mistakes, you’re practically out of the race before it even begins.
You’re starting from the parking lot.
Who makes these rules? Who benefits from these rules?
Who gets to decide what is the “wrong” way or how we even define a “mistake”?
That’s what’s most fascinating, because parents like Mrs. Richardson or even Mrs. McCullough, May Ling’s prospective mother, are by no means perfect.
They don’t have perfect relationships or lives, and yet their mistakes are not scrutinized the same way people scrutinize Bebe’s or even Mia’s “mistakes.”
When people like Bebe or Mia make “mistakes,” those mistakes become “public issues,” they become fodder for “public commentary,” and everybody gets a say.
That’s really why suddenly everybody has an opinion on this situation.
That’s why the case of May Ling ignites a firestorm in Shaker Heights.
And what makes this case so impossible is that people want May Ling to end up with the perfect mother, but by definition the perfect mother doesn’t exist!
There’s no one person who is perfectly equipped to not only anticipate but meet every single need another human has or will ever have.
Most children, inevitably, long for more than their parents can give them, no matter how much or how little wealth, comfort, culture, or love exists in that relationship.
All these mothers are trying to figure out how to do right by their children, and what’s “right” is not only a case-by-case choice, but it’s often not clear, and that’s okay.
That’s the crux of this story, I think, that people are allowed to be imperfect.
Women, mothers, daughters, humans are allowed to be imperfect.
The scariest thing about life, and perhaps the most comforting thing, is that there’s no one way to exist.
There are so many different, complicated ways to make a life, and we have to find a way to make our peace with that.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. Just like her first book, “Little Fires Everywhere” leaves so much to be explored and to discuss.
This was a clear five-star book for me, and I would love to hear your take on the story in the comments below.
But that’s everything I had for this review today. Thank you so much for reading this post.
I really hope that you enjoyed it, and I will catch YOU on the flip-side of the page.