Book Review: “Little Fires Everywhere,” by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, begins at the end—in the aftermath of an arson fire that destroys the tony suburban home of the Richardsons, the family at the center of this story. From there, Ng goes back to uncover the origins of the “little fires” that smolder at first and ultimately ignite the conflagration.

Little Fires Everywhere is a brilliantly plotted story that touches on hot-button issues of race, assimilation, abortion, adoptions, motherhood, the tenuous family bonds and the furtive lives and shifting alliances of teen-agers. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but Ng does it skillfully and without coming across as preachy.

Set in 1998, the novel offers powerful lessons that are relevant today as our nation struggles with racial tensions and deep fissures that roil on national political debate.

The Richardsons are in many ways the embodiment of the American Dream. Elena, the matriarch, is a third-generation resident of Shaker Heights, a progressive suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, built on order and rules. Their lives are upended when an itinerant visual artist, Mia Warren, moves into town with her teen-age daughter, Pearl. Mia rents an apartment in a home owned by the Richardsons at a below market rent, which Elena sees as an act of charity.

Pearl quickly forms a bond with Moody and the two high school sophomores are inseparable. But Trip, a year older than Moody, has designs on Pearl. And, complicating matters, Lexi, the Richardson’s oldest sibling, a high school senior, takes Pearl under her wing. And that’s just the children’s dilemmas. Conflict erupts among the adults when Elena and Mia find themselves on the opposite sides of a custody battle after family friends of the Richardsons try to adopt a Chinese-American baby. Elena, who works as a reporter for a local paper, is suspicious of Mia’s motives and begins digging into her past. What she discovers is troubling and she makes the fateful decision to act on it.

The most mysterious figure in this tale of two entangled families is Isabelle (Izzy), the youngest Richardson. A high school freshman with no filter and an iconoclastic streak, Izzy is able to grasp the toxicity of the situation, but lacks the judgment and maturity to deal with it in a constructive way.

Secrets and mysteries can create unbearable burdens, just as a slavish devotion to rules and order can cloud judgment and impede empathy. At the same time, people who believe they have progressive views on race can act in ways that are contrary to their professed beliefs. These are among the chief take-aways from this thought-provoking story.

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