Rather than putting out small fires to keep ahead, Celeste Ng proposes letting them roar and flame to cleanse and start anew in her novel Little Fires Everywhere. The story begins with a fire destroying a house, but with the reassurance of lives saved, and possibly renewed. As Ng backtracks to lead the reader to the moment of flameout, her characters expose how differences can be threatening as well as as freeing.
Mia, a talented artist who settles into a small town outside of Cleveland, is the heart of the story. Leading a vagabond life with her teen-age daughter, Pearl, Mia works as a waitress to sustain her real vocation in art. Although the mother and daughter usually stay only a short time in a town, leaving after Mia completes her latest art work and ships it to New York for sale, this time they plan to stay longer – maybe settling.
Their landlord is Elena Richardson with family roots dating back generations, connecting to political and social wealth. Having opted for small town prestige rather than dangerous adventure in the outside world, she returned to the town after graduation, worked as a journalist for the small town newspaper, married her college sweetheart who became the town attorney, had four children in five years, and comfortably settled into a predictable life. Three of her children follow the same formula: Tripp, the eldest handsome seventeen year old with dimples and success in sports – the high school ladies man; Lexie, the popular and pretty sixteen year old girl; Moody, intelligent and quieter than his siblings. They are all elegant foils for the artsy freedom and open-mindedness of Mia and Pearl.
Only the youngest, Izzy, seems to fall out of pattern, stretching the limits and often getting into trouble – but for all the right reasons. The author tells us Izzy has set the fire, but it takes reading to the end of the novel to discover her motivation.
As the author slowly unravels each character’s background, she offers reasons for their inclinations and actions. Several unlikely connections begin to proliferate the tension and drama: Pearl and Moody become friends, Elena hires Mia to clean her house and cook her meals in exchange for rent, and Elena’s childhood friend who cannot have children tries to adopt an abandoned Chinese baby.
With astute observations of how this WASP community operates, Ng cleverly exposes their underlying prejudice. Of course, none of the townspeople would see their zoning or country club style of living as restrictive. After all, Lexie has a Black boyfriend whose parents are compared to the Cosby television series parents – lawyer and doctor with upper middle class mores. And the few Asians who go to school with Elena’s children fit the stereotype of bright and polite. The courtroom scene may be the highlight of Ng’s final thrust at ignorance when the Asian attorney questions Elena’s friend about her intentions for raising a Chinese baby; her claims of instilling culture by eating at a Chinese restaurant and reading the children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers should make the reader cringe.
Elena Richardson’s relentless pursuit to uncover Mia’s past reminded me of a comment I heard directed at a group of women. This disingenuously polite discussion leader noted her dislike for anyone not willing to share personal secrets because, after all, she claimed, friendships are only formed when persons of interest are willing to open up and expose their vulnerable sides. The notion scared me; why would I want anyone, everyone, to know all about me, especially someone like Elena, who proved her willingness to use information to destroy. We all let pieces of ourselves seep out, as needed, and only a few trusted friends know more about us than others who stay on the periphery of relationships. For Elena, knowledge was power, but only within the parochial confines of her small world. For Mia, small-mindedness had no place in her world.
Mia’s relationships with Pearl and Izzy create a safe haven, as she doggedly pursues her art. As Mia’s past life is slowly revealed, her character becomes more and more in contrast to Elena. Ng uses Mia as a sympathetic voice for women who do what they must to survive and thrive – outside society’s norms. By the end, I had respect for Mia, despite some of her decisions, and pity for Elena.
If you read Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, you know she thrives on mystery. I’ve added her to my short list of authors like Patchett and Shreve who always deliver a good story; I can’t wait for her next book.