Book Reviews

Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

This book is everything to me. Little Fires Everywhere touched me deeply in its discussion of motherhood and adoption (in many forms). As an adopted Chinese-American, I underestimated the pull it would have for me. Please learn from my mistakes. Little Fires Everywhere is a must read for anyone who is a mother, would like to become a mother, or is interested in a careful exploration of what motherhood means.

Summary

Shaker Heights is all about planning. They plan what color your houses can be, based on the style, how tall your lawn may grow, and what the houses look like from the outside. The Richardson matriarch, Elena, has lived by this principle. She has carefully calculated her life. But she never could have expected Mia Warren and her daughter to not only shake the foundations of their community, but to change her family forever. Mia is an artist and single mother, who rents the Richardson’s duplex. Soon all four Richardson children are drawn to the pair, attaching like barnacles or in love. However, Mia is different from most others in Shaker Heights. Not only does she have a dangerous secret, but she does not mind rocking the boat. When a pair of family friends of the Richardsons try to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle breaks forth that divides families and puts the town at opposition with itself. Even more so, Elena and Mia seem to be on rivaling sides.

Review

I took three pages of notes on this book, so to say I loved it and it made me think is an understatement. What I loved so much about this book had to be the discussion of motherhood. Ng masterfully weaves us a narrative that examines the idea of motherhood under a magnifying glass and from many angles. We see those who do not wish to become mothers, those who desperately desire children, and even those who deemed ‘unacceptable’ mothers.

Adoption

The last categorization of mothers is incredibly touching to me, because it interacts with the adoption narrative – which is extremely personal to me. Ng asks us if there is something essential about the connection between a mother and a child, if nurture could erase this bond. We are also asked who defines an (un)fit mother/family? Is it about our circumstances now or does it apply to our potential? In this space of debate, Ng encourages a discussion about the pressures and responsibilities we put on mothers. We expect mothers to ‘raise their children better’ (or what they mean by this is raise their daughters better so that they do not become mothers themselves), and infallible, magically able to make anything work, even if they are desperately poor and have a moment of doubt. (Not to mention the utter irony of the singular responsibility of women to ‘know better’ about having children, as if accidents or other parties were not involved).

Culture Erasure

Another moving topic that Ng deals with is the subtle racism still prevalent in American culture – the way the Asian identity is erased. Even growing up, I felt the same struggles of finding dolls or books that reflected who I am. I remember it was a huge deal in my house because the American Doll Company had no Asian ‘American Girl’. A lot of what I was able to find, was fetishized, or how Western culture interpreted Chinese culture. Not only is this a factor in the adoption debate, but a beam of light is shed on this aspect through a side character. (Additionally, I found the argument of ‘not seeing race’ to be particularly insightful in this book. There’s this tension between those in the community who believe they’re above race, while still feeling as if they are being ‘compassionate’ to those below them by throwing them the bones. At the same time, there’s the very real issue of ethnicity that I briefly talk about above).

The Characters

I absolutely loved the characters of Mia, Pearl, and Elena’s daughter Izzy. In Mia I saw her resilience, her strength of spirit, and I loved seeing her backstory told through her perspective. Mia is incredibly insightful not only about art, but also life. I understood the difficulty of Izzy’s life – surrounded by people who do not understand her. Izzy almost became this silent underdog of my affection. She was fierce, compassionate, and incredibly misunderstood. And in Pearl I saw myself – the determination, the understanding, and the kindness.

While I understood Elena’s character, she was a person I found difficult to like. But in that way, I think Ng did a fantastic job with her. She is not a ‘villain’ or a ‘hero’. Instead she is complicated – fighting a deep repressed sense of regret with a strict view of the world as black and white. I did not agree with her actions at all – but she sticks with you. Ultimately, we end with her story. The book is framed by a family tragedy from her perspective. And in this, Ng seems to ask us if people can change. (The entire ending for Mia and Pearl, Izzy, and Elena were perfect. There was this sense of poetic justice and hopefulness to it. Ng does not give us an easy ending either, as some resolutions to threads in the plot still give us pause to question).

Overall

I could go on for days about this book, about its lush writing, about its look at class differences, or even its evocative descriptions of art. But to say the least, I loved it all. Little Fires Everywhere is one of those rare books where I loved every aspect – plot, setting, writing, and characters. I loved the mysterious plot and family secrets of Mia combined with Richardson children and adoption storyline. The setting of Shaker Heights is detailed and evokes some sort of mix between ‘Pleasantville’ and The Stepford Wives to me. I fell in love with the writing – the way the theme of motherhood is refracted in multiple lights and the exploration of mother/daughter relationships. And I enjoyed the characters, even the ones I disliked. There is an art form to writing a novel that incites passion, debate, and three pages of notes and Little Fires Everywhere is that novel.

You need Little Fires Everywhere in your life. Pick it up at Amazon(US), find it at your local indie, add it to Goodreads, and visit Ng’s website.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review from First to Read.

Discussion

Do you know many other books that discuss adoption?

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See my review of Ng’s other book, Everything I Never Told You


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7 thoughts on “Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

  1. This sounds amazing. I’ve been kind of unsure about this book because her other book was also quite sad. On the other hand, I was intrigued by the conflict. It is funny how society always judges mothers but not fathers…that much…

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