Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
I read it as a: hardback
Source: my own collection
Length: 338 pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Shaker Heights is a planned community near Cleveland, OH. All the houses are perfectly maintained, the yards perfectly manicured, the house colors all within code. The people who live there all follow the rules and look after each other and never have to worry about locking their doors. Everything and everyone has a plan and no one really deviates from it. Elena Richardson is a product of Shaker, born and bred, and she takes the place of rules, law, and order in her life very seriously. Mia Warren, Elena’s new tenant, flies in the face of everything Shaker, and Elena herself, stands for, living an itinerant and carefree life with her teenage daughter, Pearl. When family friends of the Richardsons find themselves in the middle of a contentious, racially charged adoption, secrets come out on all sides and have shattering consequences for everyone.
I loved this book so much. It was quiet and subversive and just about perfect. There are a lot of people worthy of sympathy: Mia is a free spirit and keeps moving to stoke her creative spirit. Pearl has never been able to make friends because they move every few months, so her refuge is in books and her own intelligence. Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson brood, is overlooked or criticized at every turn and struggles to find her voice through a series of increasingly irrational acts. These three were my favorite characters. I loathed Elena Richardson, even though she was a sympathetic figure in her own way as well. She was really the one who set in motion the whole devastating series of events, even though at first it appears to be Mia who did so.
There was just so much to unpack in this novel. It was subtle in its subversion, which is often the best kind. You are reading along and come across a scene and a few pages later you go, “Wait, what?” and have to go back to something. It hits you later and makes you think. Those are the best books. For me, this made me think about the various ways motherhood played a role in this narrative. I couldn’t stand Elena Richardson, but I wonder if she was a better mother than Mia Warren. Mia clearly loved Pearl with all her heart and would never make her feel inadequate or picked on and wouldn’t criticize everything she does the way Elena does Izzy. Elena treats Izzy differently than her other three children, constantly picking on her, being annoyed by her, criticizing her for every little thing. NOT OK. However, once we learn why she does that, it doesn’t make it ok but it does make it understandable. It makes me wonder how it might have changed Elena’s relationship with Izzy if she had told her why. Mia, on the other hand, has moved Pearl every few months. Pearl has no friends until they move to Shaker Heights, where they initially plan to stay forever. Mia might seem to love Pearl more fiercely and in a manner that I, at least, can relate to more easily, but she also may not have done the best thing for Pearl by moving her so much because she isn’t very good at making friends, doesn’t really know how to be a normal teenager. Mia kept a lot of important things from Pearl but, unlike Elena, she does tell her eventually. I wonder how it will affect their relationship, too.
Motherhood intersects with race when it comes to Bebe, the McCulloughs, and May Ling/Mirabelle. This was such a heartbreaking part of the story. On the one hand, I generally tend to believe that most people deserve second chances. Bebe had tried to do the right thing by her baby, May Ling, and when she couldn’t, she took her to a place she felt would be safe and where she could get her back when she was able to get on her feet again. The fact that she didn’t know at all about any resources available to help her wasn’t her fault. She didn’t speak English well at the time and she didn’t know what to ask or who to go to. When the McCulloughs tried to adopt the baby, renaming her Mirabelle, they highlighted the institutional racism they were inundated with. They had no idea about Asian culture or how to teach their adopted daughter about it. They made casual, cringe-worthy remarks about how she already likes rice and panda bears. Ugh. They didn’t even consider keeping her birth name and didn’t think it was wrong to change it until Izzy challenged them about it. They felt they were more suited to raise May Ling than Bebe because they’re rich and the wife will be a stay at home mother; the unsaid message is that it’s also because they’re white. The excuse they used in court is that Bebe left the baby at a fire department, terminating her parental rights, whereas they have been trying for years to have children to no avail, so clearly they want kids. At some point, May Ling becomes an object rather than a person, even if she is still a baby, and it seems like the McCulloughs just want a baby, any one will do. To me, that point is proven later when they end up trying to adopt another baby even after May Ling is gone. If I was so attached to a child (and I am, I am a mother myself), I don’t think I could bear to try to have another one if anything took that child away from me. It would feel like replacing the child with a new one.
Throughout the story, we wonder who should be a mother? What makes a mother? Can we choose our mothers? Can we have more than one mother? What makes a good mother or an unfit mother? Ng never answers the questions she raises about mothers and motherhood, and I like that ambiguity. She lets her readers think about them and come to their own conclusions about them. I’ve changed my own mind a bunch of times just since the beginning of this review…