Great reads: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

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The buzz for this one built up quickly, and now it has been picked up for development as a series. I rarely jump on books or anything else while it’s hot, but I managed to read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere while it is warm, and it’s a great read.

It begins in Shaker Heights, the tony neighborhood outside Cleveland that was the United States’ first planned community, named after the celibate sect who had a rule for everything, in the name of simplicity. This isn’t a story about a Housing Association nightmare, it is about two very different ways of living and how they collide. Ng writes wonderful and compelling characters, deftly using the third omniscient to effortlessly shift points of view without confusion. It’s a writing style that has fallen into disuse, some self-proclaimed writing gurus even call it “instant death,” but like any tool, in the proper hands it can be used masterfully.

This is Ng’s second novel. She dodges the sophomore slump and created a real rocket. The story begins in the ’90s, as the Richardsons, led by Mrs. Richardson, a lifelong resident of Shaker, whose family has lived there for three generations, watches her beautiful house burn to the frame. We get a hint of the story; a mother and her daughter zip away in a battered VW Rabbit packed to the roof with their belongings; the fire, set by the troublesome youngest Richardson daughter Izzy, is the new subject of neighborhood gossip, supplanting the controversy over baby “Mirabelle McCullough/May Lin Wong”, who we learn about in due course. The story moves quickly. This is the kind of novel where you might be concerned there is little plot, as it focuses on two women and the successful lives they’ve build, their secret philosophies, and the events that created them, but the story moves along at a brisk pace, and never drags for a moment. It is as skillful as a great thriller in that regard, elegant and spare in its prose, and moves the “camera” of its point of view like a master documentarian, observing its subjects, and informing us when we see things the others can’t possibly know.

The story skips back to the “beginning,” when Mrs Richardson rents a Shaker duplex to a woman her age, artist Mia Warren, and her teen daughter Pearl. Mrs Richardson (Elena– but almost always referred to by her “title”) is a journalist for the town paper, and never broke out to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, to her chagrin. Her husband is a lawyer, and their four children are all in high school, one year apart, like clockwork: the popular Lexie, about to graduate; Trip, the jock; Moody, the aptly named bookish introvert, coming to an MFA program near you; and Izzy, the troublemaker, who wears Doc Martens under her designer jeans, who asks the questions no one wants to answer.

Mrs Richardson likes to rent her duplex cheaply to “good” people who could never afford to live in her Utopian community, like Mr Yang, a hard-working immigrant, and the Warrens: a single mother (a political football in the ’90s, if you remember, Murphy Brown and all. My mother raised us from when I was seven, so I’m quite aware of the judgments Americans put on these families, and how they were pawns in politics, a moral problem to some, a hero to others). Mia is a fascinating character, a mystery. She and her daughter live like nomads; she turns their apartments into her studio for photographic art, and sells her work at a gallery in Manhattan. There is much more to this than it seems, and as young Pearl becomes a part of the family, she feels entitled to investigate Mia’s life using her journalist skills. Mia works as an artist, and in a local Chinese restaurant to make ends meet, where the flexible hours and leftovers help out.

Mrs Richardson’s desire for control leads her to offer Mia a job as their housekeeper. Out of kindness, of course. Pearl is over the house all the time, anyway! But partly, she is driven by her mystification of how Mia can live untethered to a house, free to move whenever she pleases. They get more entangled when Mrs Richardson’s oldest friend Linda McCullough, who can’t have children, adopts a Chinese baby that was abandoned in front of a fire department in town. The mother turns out to be Mia’s coworker, the young Chinese immigrant Bebe. She tried to get her baby back the next day, but was told she had surrendered all rights, and gave up hope. Mia gives her hope, and tells her how to get help.

Character is revealed through plot, and the plot moves forward driven by character. We know it all ends in “little fires everywhere,” and the mysteries of Mrs Richardson’s need for rules and order and her short temper with her youngest, rebellious daughter Izzy, and why Mia and Pearl are seemingly on the run, are revealed as they take different sides in Bebe Wong’s mission to get her daughter back. It’s divisive, and the narrator lets us decide who to side with, and while this is a subplot given the backseat to the main characters, the teens as they fumble through life, some faced with difficult decisions of their own, and the parents as their past choices define who they have become, it drives the whole novel: how important are the rules?

It’s a subject I try to tackle in fiction, though I am not as skilled as Celeste Ng. In my hands, it’s a battle between Love and the Law. You’ll be seeing more of that underlying my stories. I burned through this in a day or two, because the story was so compelling. I’m eager to see it expanded into an eight episode series on Hulu, with Reese Witherspoon as Mrs Richardson and Kerry Washington, who I assume will play Mia Warren. There are many great characters for actors to chew on. I saw Mrs Richardson as a young Alison Janney, and Mia as Sonja Sohn, Moody as Lucas Hedges (Danny from Lady Bird) and Izzy as Hannah Alligood (Frankie in Better Things, a great show).

 

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