Little Fires Everywhereby Published 07 May 2019
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Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours 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 teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons' friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia's.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.
Little Fires Everywhere Reviews
All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.
4 1/2 stars. You should go into this book expecting what it is: a slow-moving character portrait filled with complex family dynamics and small-town politics. If you know what this is, like with Ng's Everything I Never Told You, and don't go into it expecting fast-pacing and high-octane drama, you will probably find this quiet read to be extremely engrossing and emotional.
I have to be in the mood for this kind of read, but when I am, it packs a powerful punch. These characters are so vivid, so real, so caught up in the little fires of everyday life in Shaker Heights. There's several stories going on in here, but the book begins with literal fires lighting up the Richardson household and the knowledge that the youngest daughter, Izzy, the wild card, has disappeared. Presumably because she is guilty of the arson.
Then we move back from there. We start to get a portrait of the events leading up to this dramatic fire. We see the poor artist, Mia, and her daughter, Pearl, move into town and the effect they have on all members of the Richardson family. Further back, we get the past stories of almost every character who comes into this book. It is such a rich work in which the personal stories and experiences of secondary characters play a huge part in influencing how events unfold.
And, behind it all, is a court case that will affect all the characters lives. A custody battle over a Chinese baby who could be given every toy, every desire, every opportunity by her rich and white adoptive parents - but is that all? Is that enough when her poor birth mother is ready and willing to care for her? Things become very tense. The town becomes divided. And I felt an emotional wreck by the end of it, too.
Mrs. Richardson, however, could not let Izzy be, and the feeling coalesced in all of them: Izzy pushing, her mother restraining, and after a time no one could remember how the dynamic had started, only that it had existed always.
The Richardson family, along with Mia and Pearl, Bebe, and the McCulloughs, all pulled me into their lives. I despised a character at one point, only to find pity for them a couple of chapters later. The relationship between Izzy and her mother was a real point of interest for me. How Mrs. Richardson's fears about Izzy affected her behaviour toward her, which in turn affected how Izzy behaved. All leading to the ultimate question: was Izzy always what Mrs. Richardson feared she was? Or did Mrs. Richardson create what she most feared through her treatment of Izzy?
Little Fires Everywhere is a great example of how small character dynamics can create a powerful and fascinating story. I love the empathy the author shows for all the people in this book - even the manipulative, morally corrupt and undeserving. No one is merely good or bad. And that is what makes the book so effective. Whose side am I on? I'll let you know if I ever figure it out.
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The Richardson family lives a perfect life, planned to a T and that's what Elena Richardson, her husband and four children seem to have, at least to fifteen year old Pearl Warren. Pearl moves with her itinerant artist mother, Mia, into a rental house owned by the Richardsons in Shaker Heights and becomes infatuated with this family, their house, their life style so different from her own and is mostly infatuated with three of the teenage siblings. The reader though knows from the get go that there's no perfection here . An awful thing happens to this family and we know what it is from the first sentence but I won't give it away.
The Shaker Heights motto is: "Most communities just happen; the best are planned " : the underlying philosophy being that everything could - and should- be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous." The truth is that life happens and no matter what - things cannot be avoided and what happens here defies this underlying philosophy.
But this is not the most awful thing that happens in this family. For me it was the dysfunctional relationship that Elena has with her youngest daughter Izzy . Izzy reminds me in some ways of Hannah in Ng's last book, Everything I Never Told You. Unlike Hannah, Izzy is not invisible not totally ignored, but she is picked on, made fun of and seems to always be the recipient of her mother's impatience with things that are not perfect. Theirs is not the only mother-daughter relationship that Ng focuses on . There is Mia and Pearl, who move from place to place, with Pearl not knowing the reason why or who her father was. There is Bebe, Mia's coworker, and her newborn baby May-Ling that she abandons and then fights to get custody. Bebe's story at first seems secondary but it ends up being the impetus for Elena's almost obsessive search to find out Mia's past.
Ng delves deep into her characters and you feel you know them inside and out even though it takes until the end to fully understand Elena and Izzy. You may not like all of them but you will understand them . This I find to be Ng's strength as a writer- how she makes us know her characters. One of the most poignant scenes in the novel, is when the Richardsons find the photographs that Mia leaves for them. She came to know them too . Definitely recommended to those who were fans of Everything I Never Told You, and stories of families who are less than perfect, which I'm sure many of us can relate to.
I received an advanced copy of this book from Penguin Publishing Group through Edelweiss.
The book links are not working for me now but I'll try again later to insert them.
Metaphorically speaking, everyone has 'little fires' in their lives - events that begin as a small spark, and have the ability to transform into a raging inferno, changing lives for ever.
Shaker Heights, Cleveland is an idyllic place to live, everything has been planned to create the perfect community, but it's residents are expected to live by its many rules and regulations.
The Richardson's are quintessentially the kind of family who the community of Shaker Heights was built for. Elena Richardson was brought up with these rules, and she and her husband are determined that their four children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy will live by them too. Izzy isn't exactly a chip off the old block though, and will prove to be very disruptive.
The Richardson's rent out an apartment to people they feel need a helping hand, and their latest tenants are Mia and her daughter Pearl. Mia is a free spirit, an artist specialising in photography, and when Elena’s troublesome daughter Izzy becomes close to Mia, Elena finds that she's jealous of the relationship, a relationship that doesn't exist between her and Izzy. Further to this, an adoption case in the community puts Elena and Mia on opposing sides, and Elena decides to do some digging on Mia’s past, and uproots some secrets that will change everything.
Oh gosh, this book explores so many issues, but for me the one that stood out was motherhood, and in particular, the relationship between mothers and daughters, from baby's early days to teenage angst.
It was beautifully written, with characters so well developed I felt as if I knew them personally. I also liked the setting of Shaker Heights, a place so perfect and orderly, and yet, ultimately there is always someone who will rip up those precious rules and regulations and throw them in the garbage.
Celeste Ng writes with great insight and empathy, and leaves the reader with much to think about.
*Thank you to Netgalley and Little, Brown Book Group for my ARC in exchange for an honest review*
My reviews can also be seen at: https://deesradreadsandreviews.wordpress.com/
“Little Fires Everywhere” is my first read by Celeste Ng, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t be my last. I could easily have read this book in just one or two sittings but life got in the way (in this case life being a glass of 7up, a knee jerk and “Nooo! Save the books!”). But once the book was dry, I picked it up again and didn’t stop until I finished the last page.
Everything in Shaker Heights is planned and there are rules that residents must follow. Houses can only be painted certain colors (to ensure aesthetic harmony), garbage is never put out in front of the house, lawns must always be cut promptly, etc.
The city motto says it all:
“Most communities just happen; the best are planned”
When Mia Warren and her fifteen year old daughter, Pearl rent a home from the Richardsons, a prominent Shaker Heights family – their lives will become intertwined in ways they never could have imagined.
Mrs. Richardson liked to rent to people she felt were deserving of her help, people who may have had some tough turns in life. She felt it was her way of giving back. When she first meets Mia Warren and her daughter she thinks they are the perfect tenants.
One of the Richardson boys, Moody is curious about the new tenants and heads over to the rental property. Moody and Pearl hit it off immediately. Moody who has never wanted for anything, is surprised at how this mother and daughter make their way. Mia can stretch a dollar (and leftover food) farther than anyone he’s ever seen. It’s not long before Moody brings Pearl home to meet everyone. Soon Pearl is spending much of her time at the Richardson home. At first, everything is fantastic. Mrs. Richardson even hires Mia to do some housekeeping and cooking at the Richardson home. But it won’t be long before the many differences between Mia and Mrs. Richardson cause a divide that will affect the two families in unimaginable ways.
In some ways, I felt bad for Pearl as the nomadic life that her mother had them living would be hard on anyone, especially a teenage girl. However, Pearl also seemed to benefit from the way they lived. At first, Mia came across as incredibly selfish but it wasn’t long before I loved her. Her caring ways were evident and how she responded to the different crises that came up endeared her to me. I may not have agreed with all of her choices but I could certainly see how she would have made them.
Right off the bat I was irked by Mrs. Richardson (the fact that she was rarely referred to by her first name was fitting). Mrs. Richardson was the type who wanted to be seen as someone who cared and helped others. However, you could tell right away that she kept track of all the good things she had done. And you never knew when Mrs. Richardson would want a repayment of her “kindness”. When she offers to buy one of Mia’s photographs and Mia doesn’t fall at her feet with gratitude...
“That’s very generous of you.” Mia’s eyes slid toward the window briefly and Mrs. Richardson felt a twinge of irritation at this lukewarm response to her philanthropy.
Izzy was a firecracker and I adored her impulsiveness and strong feelings about right and wrong. Even at ten years old, setting shelter cats free “They’re like prisoners on death row” , her refusal to conform was thrilling. Mrs. Pissers and the toothpick incident had me giggling. And I hurried to Google to search “This Be The Verse” by Philip Larkin.
There was a lot going on in “Little Fires Everywhere” but I found it easy to keep up. I will say that it had a bit of a slow start but I feel the author was just setting the stage for all that was to come. And once I hit the halfway mark, I was so completely invested into all of their lives and HAD to know what was going to happen next.
The additional story-line of little Mirabelle McCullough/May Ling Chow’s adoption was incredibly thought provoking and had me asking myself some hard questions. I honestly didn’t know which side I was on half the time. My head was spinning.
“What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
I thought that the development of the characters was fantastic. With so many characters and only so many pages, it takes skill to bring them all to life. And in my opinion; Celeste Ng did a phenomenal job. And with the many 90’s references such as Sir-Mix-a-lot, Smashing Pumpkins, Jerry Springer, and Monica Lewinsky - I was taken back to my own adolescence.
This was an intriguing and compelling domestic drama. A story about motherhood, adolescence, race, rules, right and wrong, and so much more. Great characters and an interesting plot made “Little Fires Everywhere” a fast and fantastic read.
Many thanks go to Penguin Press for providing a copy of this book for me to read in exchange for my honest review.
“Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance. We all do things we regret now and then. You just have to carry them with you.”
Never in my life have I read any book, any narrative, that cared as deeply for all of its characters as this one did. Little Fires Everywhere lives in the grey area, leaving it impossible not to be invested, impossible not to love every character and cry for every character and root for every character, despite all their flaws.
I really struggle to characterize this book; it’s sort of a combination between a mystery and literary fiction, and will probably work best for you if you’re a fan of both? Little Fires Everywhere is a very slow-burn story about a small town thrown into disarray by a court dispute. When an Asian baby given up by her mother is adopted by a white family, it causes a spiral of events that lead to a scene of a house on fire and a family driven away.
I think I’ve already expressed this, but this book is.... a masterpiece. It’s one of those books that I finished and then was just on my bed tearing up because it’s so well-crafted. The reason this book is so fantastic is primarily structural; we see the end, and then we go back and see the beginning.
But anyway, the reason this book works so well is the characterization. There is so much to appreciate here. I like that Moody is sort of written as the stereotypical jilted nice guy, and and then we see more nuance to that characterization. I loved the complexity of the dynamic between poor characters and rich characters; I loved how no character is black and white, but they have definition nonetheless.
Of the approximately-eleven-person main cast, Izzy is my absolute favorite. Izzy is a ridiculously relatable character for me personally mainly through her relationship with her mom. There’s a line somewhere where Izzy says she thinks her mother sees her as such a demon that all her actions are framed in that light - that was me. And that is still me in my relationship with one of my parents. The degree to which the narrative of this book validates her trauma and her feelings is incredible.
And on another very personal note, Mia… kind of reminds me of my other parent. So some of you who follow me on this platform might now that my mom and I are really, really close, and I grew up with her as my main support system. And I think… her relationship with Izzy just felt so personal to me for that reason.
So maybe this was too personal a read for me, but I’m going to be honest: it’s my belief that reading is something that is meant to be personal. And maybe the degree to which this personally affected me is the most important part of all.
There’s a scene within this book that has stuck with me since the beginning, in which the adoptive mother of the baby is asked how she plans to incorporate Chinese culture into the life of the baby, and she brings up “oriental rugs” and how she gives the baby rice. And it’s this awful moment, because we know she loves that baby. We do. But in that moment she becomes the persecutor of her own child. She does not understand, and so she perpetrates a culture that has been trying to swallow up her child. I think that’s what this book is about, in the end; the degrees to which we can hurt people without ever attempting to, the way we can ruin lives through looking for our own happiness.
This book was masterful. And I hope you all read it.
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