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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere
by Celeste Ng

Hardcover (12 Sep 2017), 352 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Press
ISBN-13: 9780735224292
BookBrowse:
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From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town - and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

Excerpt
Little Fires Everywhere

The orchestra teacher, Mrs. Peters, was widely disliked by everyone. She was a tall, painfully thin woman with hair dyed an unnatural flaxen and cropped in a manner reminiscent of Dorothy Hamill. According to Izzy, she was useless as a conductor and everyone knew to just watch Kerri Schulman, the first-chair violin, for the tempo. A persistent rumor—after some years, calcified as fact—insisted that Mrs. Peters had a drinking problem. Izzy hadn't entirely believed it, until Mrs. Peters had borrowed her violin one morning to demonstrate a bowing; when she'd handed it back, the chin rest damp with sweat, it had smelled unmistakably of whiskey. When she brought her big camping thermos of coffee, people said, you knew Mrs. Peters had been on a bender the night before. Moreover, she was often bitingly sarcastic, especially to the second violins, especially the ones who—as one of the cellos put it drily—were "pigmentally blessed."

Izzy, who had been playing violin since she was four, and had been assigned second chair even though she was a freshman, should have had nothing to fear. "You'll be fine," the cello had told her, eyeing Izzy's frizzy golden hair—the dandelion fro, Lexie liked to call it. Had Izzy kept her head down, Mrs. Peters would likely have ignored her. But Izzy was not the type to keep her head down.

The morning of her suspension, Izzy had been in her seat, practicing a tricky fingering on the E string for the Saint-Saëns piece she'd been working on in her private lessons. Around her the hum of violas and cellos tuning up grew quiet as Mrs. Peters stormed in, thermos in hand. It was clear from the start that she was in an extraordinarily foul mood. "Hangover," Kerri Schulman mouthed to Izzy, who nodded gravely. She had only a general sense of what this meant.

At the podium, Mrs. Peters took a long swig from her mug of coffee. "Offenbach," she barked, raising her right hand. Around the room students riffled through their sheet music. Twelve bars into Orpheus, Mrs. Peters waved her arms. "Someone's off." She pointed her bow at Deja Johnson, who was at the back of the second violins. "Deja. Play from measure six."

Deja, who everyone knew was painfully shy, glanced up with the look of a frightened rabbit. She began to play, and everyone could hear the slight tremor from her shaking hand. Mrs. Peters shook her head and rapped her bow on her stand. "Wrong bowing. Down, up-up, down, up. Again." Deja stumbled through the piece again. The room simmered with resentment, but no one said anything.

Mrs. Peters took a long slurp of coffee. "Stand up, Deja. Nice and loud now, so everyone can hear what they're not supposed to be doing." The edges of Deja's mouth wobbled, as if she were going to cry, but she set her bow to string and began once more. Mrs. Peters shook her head again, her voice shrill over the single violin. "Deja. Down, up-up, down, up. Did you not understand me? You need me to speak in Ebonics?"

It was at this point that Izzy had jumped from her seat and grabbed Mrs. Peters's bow.

She could not say, even when telling Mia the story, why she had reacted so strongly. It was partly that Deja Johnson always had the anxious face of someone expecting the worst. Everyone knew that her mother was an RN; in fact, she worked with Serena Wong's mother down at the Cleveland Clinic, and her father managed a warehouse on the West Side. There weren't many black kids in the orchestra, though, and when her parents showed up for concerts, they sat in the last row, by themselves; they never chitchatted with the other parents about skiing or remodeling or plans for spring break. They had lived all of Deja's life in a comfortable little house at the south end of Shaker, and she had gone from kindergarten all the way up to high school without—as people joked—saying more than ten words a year.

Full Excerpt

From Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Celeste Ng, 2017.

In a vanilla Cleveland suburb, residents find that an obsession can have unexpected and devastating costs.

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Small towns, big drama. Acclaimed author Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere occasionally reads like an upscale television show, with multiple plot lines interweaving to create a delicate dissection of suburban America.

The novel begins when artist Mia Warren, and her teenage daughter Pearl, rent Elena Richardson's second home. From there, it shifts into two divergent but interlocking story lines – the clashes between foils Elena and Mia, and Pearl's coming-of-age interactions with the Richardson children. The book gains a new sense of gravity when Mia's coworker, Bebe Chow, engages in a high-profile custody clash to regain the rights to her baby, May Ling. The infant had been adopted by Elena's closest friend, Linda McCullough, a woman unable to have her own children. And while Bebe had abandoned her baby during a time of crisis, she is now in a more stable position and desperate to get her daughter back.

The struggle divides the picture-perfect town of Shaker Heights, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland), into two, and sparks resentment between Mia and Elena, leading to unforeseen consequences. While the entire novel is written extremely well, in the first half the tropes are somewhat tired—struggling artist protagonist, overbearing mom and her rebellious daughter—and the plot slow-moving. What sets Little Fires Everywhere apart is the custody battle. Bebe's desperation to regain her daughter adds a layer of emotional depth to the exploration of racial microaggressions. She fights for the rights to regain her Chinese daughter from a white family who thinks dining out at their favorite Chinese restaurant is enough to connect May Ling to her culture.

Bebe's struggles also push several moral questions to the forefront of both Shaker Heights and the reader's mind. The press points out that Bebe did abandon her baby, and the McCullough family would provide May Ling a privileged life. Then again, Bebe acted out of a larger concern about her child's future, and the McCulloughs, while affluent and loving, would deprive May Ling of experiencing her own culture. Who is "right?"

Emotionally, the reader – or, at least this reader – feels for Bebe. Mia sums up Bebe's loss beautifully: "To a parent, your child wasn't just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once." However, by making Linda McCullough desperate for children and extremely doting, Ng avoids spelling out how the reader should react, and instead paints a picture and leaves you to interpret the details.

This sense of delicacy and expert crafting is also on display with the cast of characters. With so many different viewpoints—from the four Richardson children, to Mia and Pearl, to Elena Richardson—it would be easy for the various characters to blur together, but Ng infuses each with their own personality, voice, and growth. I found myself perfectly okay with the multiplicity of voices. While it is the youngest Richardson child, Izzy, who is the most enchanting from the start—what with her black-sheep label, and her refusal to fit into the conventional Shaker Heights stereotypes – it is her older sister Lexie who surprised me the most. Arrogant and self-absorbed, Lexie also displays appealing hints of vulnerability. I wanted to know what other surprises she would serve up.

All the characters feel lifelike and balanced – everyone has their own strengths and flaws, and you sympathize even with the antagonists. Mia Warren and Elena Richardson are at opposite ends of the spectrum personality-wise – the former, artistic, eccentric, kind-hearted, spontaneous; the latter, grounded, ritualistic, scheming, determined—and their interactions form a subtle tension throughout the book, leaving the readers to wonder what cataclysmic event their polite animosity will lead up to.

Some of the story's plot does seem derivative. Even if this is not a novel for teens, the sections that feature Pearl and the Richardson children include many familiar tropes of young adult dramas – unrequited and requited love, teenage angst, the value and tensions of friendships, loners contrasted against the popular folk. Still, with its expertly done characterization, beautiful and often poignant writing, and subtle examination of suburban America, Little Fires Everywhere fills the reader with emotions and questions that linger long after the last page is finished.

Reviewed by Erin Szczechowski

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This is an impressive accomplishment.

Booklist
Starred Review. Ng's stunning second novel is a multilayered examination of how identities are forged and maintained, how families are formed and friendships tested, and how the notion of motherhood is far more fluid than bloodlines would suggest…[A] tour de force.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Spectacular sophomore work...a magnificent, multilayered epic that's perfect for eager readers and destined for major award lists.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright… With her second novel, Ng further proves she's a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.

Author Blurb Paula Hawkins, New York Times-bestselling author of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water
Witty, wise and tender. It's a marvel.

Author Blurb Jodi Picoult, New York Times-bestselling author of Small Great Things and Leaving Time
I read Little Fires Everywhere in a single, breathless sitting. With brilliance and beauty, Celeste Ng dissects a microcosm of American society just when we need to see it beneath the microscope.

Author Blurb Peter Ho Davies, author of The Fortunes
Little Fires Everywhere is a dazzlingly protean work - a comedy of manners that doubles as a social novel and reads like a thriller. By turns wry, heart-rending and gimlet-eyed, it confirms Celeste Ng's genius for gripping literary fiction.

Author Blurb Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang and Perfect Little World


As if it wasn't totally obvious from her stunning first novel, Little Fires Everywhere showcases what makes Celeste Ng such a masterful writer. The way she examines the complexity of place, and the people who inhabit that place, is some of the most virtuosic, compelling, and wise storytelling that I've seen in a long time.

Author Blurb Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty
Yes, it's the story of one Ohio town, but Little Fires Everywhere is not that familiar tale of the underside of the American suburb. It's a powerful work about parenthood and politics, adolescent strife and artistic ambition, and the stark choice between conformity and community.

Author Blurb Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing
I cracked open this book mid-morning and did not even move again until it was time to turn on a light. What a joy it was to be so thoroughly taken, to let the chores and clocks and even my own breathing stop while I raced through these pages. Celeste Ng once again proves she is a force to be reckoned with. Little Fires Everywhere is a deft, smoldering masterpiece.

Author Blurb Joe Hill, author of The Fireman and Heart-Shaped Box
As I read Celeste Ng's second novel I found myself thinking, again and again: how does she know so much? About all of us? How does she write with such perception, such marvelous grace, such daring and generosity?...It marks Celeste Ng as a writer of the first rank, among the very best in her generation - right there with Zadie Smith and Jacqueline Woodson. I was mad for this book.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by lani
A book club's dream
Wouldn't I love to be a fly on the wall listening to the animated discussion in book clubs following the reading of this superb novel. This is a novel that demands a book club and is destined to be one of the hottest picks for 2017.The Richardson family live an ordinary planned and privileged life in Shaker Heights, Ohio where the lawns are mowed, the gardens beautifully planted and neighbors are people you can count on. Mrs.Richardson dwells in this "perfect" existence with her four children and lawyer husband counting her harmony with a morally elitist sense of right vs wrong. Enter non materialistic Mia, an avant garde artist and photographer who lives life outside the box , and her teenage daughter Pearl.They roll into town and rent an apt from the Richardsons. However, Mia carries a deep dark secret that will upend both families' lives when unearthed. As Mia and Pearl become deeply insinuated in the Richardson's lives, issues of motherhood arise. Is someone defined as a mother by virtue of birth or by love or both? Ng provides a fairly conventional plot with quick pacing but the characters and questions drew me in. Jump in people and let's discuss..

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Books on Adoption

In Little Fires Everywhere, an intense custody battle divides the idyllic suburban town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, into two when Bebe Chow, a Chinese immigrant, attempts to regain the rights to her daughter. The baby is now living with a white family after Bebe was forced to abandon her child during a period of desperation and poverty. While adoption alone is rarely the central theme of most novels, it can add new dimensions to the characters, spark plot points, and raise important questions about morality and identity. Below are five books that approach adoption in different ways.

Books on Adoption

Girls in Trouble by Caroline Leavitt
Set in 1987, this novel centers around an "open" adoption. After Sara's lover Danny learns she is pregnant, he splits, leaving her to deal with the aftermath alone. Sara gives up the baby, Anne, but visits the new parents often – too often. Although Sara wants her baby back, the new family isn't willing to give little Anne up. Both Girls in Trouble and Little Fires Everywhere explore what happens when a mom who gives up her child wants that child back.

White Oleander by Janet Fitch
While this critically acclaimed novel doesn't center around adoption per se, it does focus on foster homes. After her mother is imprisoned for murder, Astrid travels through a series of LA foster homes, with each new home transporting Astrid and the reader along a journey fraught with danger and self-discovery. Although adoption and foster homes are two entirely different concepts, in either circumstance, children must learn to adapt to new surroundings.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
While Wuthering Heights is not focused on the theme, Heathcliff's adoption by the Earnshaws forms the backdrop of the story, and the often cruel treatment of Heathcliff by members of his new family inform his character's development growing up.

The Giver by Lois Lowry
This classic dystopian tale takes place in a community where, technically, everyone is adopted, as birthmothers provide the children who are then distributed to family units. While a children's book, The Giver explores relatively dark themes, and, towards the latter half, begins to investigate the relationship between parent and child, infant bonding, and familial love.

Digging to America by Anne Tyler
This book features two couples who meet at an airport, each waiting to adopt a baby from Korea. Just like Little Fires Everywhere, this novel touches on interracial adoption, although Digging to America explores what happens after the babies are brought home.

By Erin Szczechowski

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