Book review: “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

by Rebecca Henderson Palmer on October 23, 2017

Perpetual wanderers Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter Pearl stop in Shaker Heights, OH, an affluent suburb east of Cleveland. There they rent part of a duplex from a Mrs. Richardson, a Shaker Heights native and long-time resident. Mia and Pearl divulge few details about their past except that they’ve moved often over the course of Pearl’s life and now hope to settle down in Shaker to allow Pearl to form lasting friendships and graduate high school. Mia is a free-spirited artist who works part-time jobs to allow herself time to do her first love, photography. Her daughter Pearl, happy to finally put down roots somewhere, instantly connects on a deep level with the Richardson children. Shaker Heights is filled with families like the Richardsons, a well-to-do family of four children: Tripp, Lexi, Moody, and Izzy. Pearl becomes Lexi’s friend, the object of Moody’s affections, and Tripp’s eventual girlfriend. She becomes totally ensconced in their upper crust, privileged lifestyle until multiple events begin to disrupt “Pleasantville” and its inhabitants, forcing Mia and Pearl to flee. Mia chooses to help a Chinese immigrant, Bebe, whose infant daughter Mei-Ling (whom Bebe abandoned 10 months ago at a fire station when she had no means of supporting her) was fostered by Shaker residents and close Richard friends, the McCulloughs. An ongoing court battle ensues with biological mother Bebe squaring off against the McCulloughs who have raised, loved, and nurtured the child for the past 10 months. Lexi too creates complications when she goes for an abortion, unbeknownst to her boyfriend or parents, with her friend Pearl at her side and uses Pearl’s name on the clinic forms. And then Pearl begins a sexual relationship with Tripp Richardson, which wounds her ardent admirer Moody. Drama unfolds as the truth comes out and hard decisions are made. All comes to a head one night when the Richardson home goes up in flames, and everyone must deal with the literal and metaphoric conflagration.

I wanted so much to love this book, but I am left with a final verdict of: TRITE. This book truly suffers from horribly lazy writing, in my opinion. First of all, the characters are SO stereotypical and one dimensional that it’s boring (more on that later). Secondly, the coincidences in this story are so over the top, it becomes comedic. (Wow, that Mrs. Richardson can get access to anything and everything she wants to get dirt on people, including birth certificates, medical records, confidential legal information, and she can even compel two people to fully reveal their dark, painful family secrets to a total stranger – a reporter, no less! And this was nearly 30 years ago, before the internet and she is still miraculously resourceful!) The “chance” plot points are enough to make your eyes roll.

But my biggest beef with this book was the iron fist of the author, who basically outlines the heroes and villains from the very earliest pages. The book can be summed up this way:  if you’re a Shaker Heights native or long-time resident, you’re evil, manipulative, condescending (even in your charitable giving), bigoted, fearful, a terrible parent, and shallow. If you’re not a Shaker resident (Mia and Bebe in particular though Izzy also falls into this category), you’re a sympathetic figure, free spirited, artistic, brave, righteous, and non-conformist. The author draws the battle lines in neon lines from the outset. It is a foregone conclusion as to who will lose hugely and who will win major victories. When you get to the extremely predictable ending events, let me know if anything surprises you (I promise you, they won’t).

This would have been an amazing opportunity to show the complexity of race, parenthood, and relationships against this complex backdrop, but that’s not what you see here. The author dictates the winners and losers off the bat: super evil villains versus the underdogs. There is NO doubt how the author views the characters and no doubt how she thinks you should view the characters too. (I don’t know about you, but I chafe at people telling me how to think and what to believe. I also greatly dislike knowing how things will unfold before I’ve passed page 5.) Providing enough complexity and multi-dimensional characters for readers to form their own options is hard work because no one (fictional or otherwise) is totally good or bad. But Ms. Ng, on the other hand, gives us a cop out and boils this down to a transparent morality tale and a poor one at that.

Since when is it OK to assign people motives based on their race or financial standing in life? So why would we allow authors to do the same thing?

Long-time readers of this blog will attest that I go out of my way to find the good aspects of every book. This book, however, was disappointing on every level.  #notafan

Amazon link is here.

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