On my 2019 book list, I was intentional about reading from a diverse range of authors and genres. I have a tendency to lean too much on nonfiction and, as I discovered, male authors. To tip that scale, I curated a list that had equality between genders and diversity among race and ethnicity. Celeste Ng, who I follow and enjoy on Twitter (her handle helps us pronounce her last name) made the list because I appreciated her thoughts in short bursts on social media and from knowing her there I knew she would also offer me a unique perspective from an Asian American woman. Also–FICTION! I need more of it in my life.
While I originally had her first novel Everything I Never Told You on my list, I picked up her second novel Little Fires Everywhere on a whim in a bookstore while on vacation in Miami. This, by the way, is very on brand for me. Wherever I’m exploring, I end up following this formula: 1) Find a bookstore, 2) Wander in delighted silence for at least an hour, 3) Read sections of about 20 books I will struggle to put back on the shelf, 4) Leave with at least one book I don’t know how I will store or when I will read. #BookLover
I started Little Fires Everywhere on my flight home on Christmas Eve and finished it about 36 hours later with a marathon breakfast-and-coffee-in-bed situation on December 26th. Thankfully, book binging is part of my Christmas celebration, and I was happy to oblige my winter hibernation with this novel–choosing solitude and story over productivity and social connections.
Ng writes her characters with an incredible balance of empathy and realism–not allowing one to be so simply understood as a savior or a villain. Even her minor characters, serving as foils to develop her core character of family, have a complexity and nuance.
This nuance extends beyond her characters and into her themes as she tackles the fraught identity of motherhood–how it weighs heavily on the women in her story. She explores motherhood through the lens of biological mothers, surrogate mothers, and adoptive mothers. She develops the concept of motherhood in a multi-generational lens. From teenage daughters’ first desires for babies to estranged grandparents who desperately seek to understand what went wrong while still feeling lost. There are fearful mothers, desperate mothers, unlikely mothers, and mothers finding their way through their weighty role.
I especially appreciated the development of Mrs. Richardson, a suburban mom of four, local journalist, and pillar in her community. Through the eyes of her children, her relationships with other mothers, and her internal dialogue, we come to know a woman deeply entrenched in her white, liberal idealism, blind to the way her moral absolutism and fear of vulnerability are destroying people and relationships. Her character offers insight to the self-harm perpetuated when women internalize perfectionistic ideals and the societal impact these women have when they see good work as charity work rather than empowerment to other women. Mrs. Richardson offers a study in the way power perpetuates and harms when not shared and confronted–in ourselves and others.
All [Mrs. Richardson’s] life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control…Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never–could never–set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.(161)
The character of Mrs. Richardson offers a powerful reflection on how our identities are threatened by others who offer alternate priorities and freedom from external restrictions. They challenge our beliefs about the world. That challenge scares and unsettles us. Too often, we take that fear and wield it to hurt the unfamiliar other, consciously or unconsciously to diminish their power, diminish their ability to unsettle us and our worldview.
Mrs. Richardson tipped her head to one side and studied her tenant. Hair, as always, unkempt atop her head. A loose white button-down un-tucked over jeans. A smudge of paint on the back of one wrist…She didn’t care, Mrs. Richardson realized, what people thought of her. In a way, that made her dangerous.(138)
I also love how Ng develops the character of Mia (the tenant referenced in passage above). While it is tempting to see Mia through the archetype of “inspirational artist” ready to save a square, conventional family from their own crippling facades, Ng deconstructs that archetype as we learn of Mia’s back story and her path to motherhood. We understand a woman with blinding drive, consuming passion, and an impulsivity that chooses isolation over connection. She mothers instinctually, softly, and with mysterious wisdom. But she can’t sustain adult relationships as they are necessarily sacrificed to avoid confrontation with her past choices and the hard work of reconciliation.
Ng uses her own home town of Shaker Heights, OH for the setting of this novel, allowing overlap from her lived experiences to weave a rich backdrop for all explorations of theme and character development. She sets it during her own high school years the 1990’s. Like her characters, the setting is coherent, believable, and complex. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania also plays a less prevalent role in the novel, and Ng again draws on personal experience for this setting and the characters who inhabit it. I always feel a thrill of excitement when a setting familiar to me crops up in a novel.
Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house–of renting, instead of owning–and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable. Shaker Heights was like that. There were rules about what you could and could not do.(9)
The story confronts racism and classism, not subtly, but with careful precision, reflecting the author’s thoughtful and personal understanding of these topics. While the setting proclaims itself as reaching for higher moral ideals, it does so by preserving the traditional power structures of whiteness and privilege. Ng complicates even these lines with characters like a desperate Chinese immigrant mother who first does the unthinkable to save her child and then does the unthinkable to save herself. She does this again with the boyfriend character of Mrs. Richardson’s daughter Lexie. Brandon comes from two wealthy, highly accomplished black parents who disagree about a court case with huge racial and class implications. Through the character of Lexie herself, Ng provides a study of the impact of privilege–not through a villain, but through an average, All-American teenager who finds herself vulnerable and faced with a decision of huge consequence. Its through the relatively silent and unseen character of Mr. Richardson, a defense attorney, that Ng crystalizes her acute understanding of how racism weaves insidiously through the thoughts, actions, and choices of those in power who fight to maintain it.
At dinner that evening, when Mrs. Richardson asked how the day’s hearing had gone, [Mr. Richardson] said little…but as the words left his mouth an idea occurred to him, a way to spin this…The following morning the Plain Dealer would publish a story mentioning Ed Lim’s ‘aggressive’ tactics, how he had badgered poor Mrs. McCullough to the point of tears. Men like him, the article would suggest, weren’t supposed to lose their cool–though it was never specified whether ‘like him’ meant lawyers or something else entirely. But the truth was–as Mr. Richardson recognized–that an angry Asian man didn’t fit the public’s expectations, and was therefore unnerving.(267)
I highly recommend this book for it’s engaging characters, carefully laid plot, and depth of theme. It will captivate while piercing your heart, holding a mirror while asking you to make a tough examination, and all the while have you unsure where you want to land. One question that will linger, having been stated only once, very clearly in the middle of the book, but clearly woven into the plot from the beginning and emphasized through the end:
Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new?(160)
PS: Just today, while searching for the photo included in this blog, I found a recently released trailer for a limited series adaptation of this book. I’m patting myself on the back for enjoying it in book form first, although this cast is sure to pull me in for the screen version as well.