This one has been on my TBR for quite some time. I got it in a monthly book subscription box (Muse Monthly, which, sadly, has closed that part of their business), about a year ago. It’s been on my shelf since then. I read Ng’s first book, Everything You Never Told Me, a couple years ago now and, while I was really impressed with the family dynamics and the way everything subtly played together, it was also a slow-burn sort of read. As a result, I was waiting to be in the right mood for a book like that before picking it up. And then, of course, time got away from me. So, when this was one of the options for my in-person book club, you know I voted for it!
“But the problem with the rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.”
Little Fires Everywhere takes place in a perfect neighborhood outside Cleveland – one of those places where there are rules about what color your house can be and exactly where your trash needs to be placed on pick-up day for the best aesthetic. The Richardson family is a perfect example of the type of people that live there. Dad is a lawyer, mom writes interest articles for a local paper, and all four kids are on track for great things. But perhaps things are not as perfect as they seem. When Mia and her daughter, Pearl, arrive and begin renting the Richardson’s nearby “investment” property some cracks start to show. The relationships Pearl creates with each of the Richardson kids, as well as the way Mia steps in to help the daughters in particular ways, throws the family dynamics considerably off track. Then, there’s a custody battle over a Chinese-American toddler that causes everyone in the Richardson family to question strongly-held, previously black and white, beliefs. And when Mia’s past decisions are brought into sharp relief by these events, it causes some tough decisions, and consequences, for everyone.
Ng’s prose is so fast and smooth that this book was almost effortless to read. The pages flew by and, quickly, I was completely caught up in the incredibly tangled web she created for her characters. There were many universal themes that were explored throughout this novel, but between the flawless writing and fascinating drama, you almost didn’t even notice how complex the “philosophical” explorations were getting. It’s really quite an impressive feat. Though similar in substance to Ng’s first, I thought this was just a little bit better. It’s got a faster pace and even more intertwined plot, while not really sacrificing character development – which for me was perfect. And though that character development is particularly focused on just a couple of the characters, I liked what we got. The way that Pearl finds something in the Richardson household that she’d never had, while the Richardson children (especially the girls) found something in Mia/Pearl’s home that was eye and soul-opening, was a great way to illustrate a couple concepts. We really get to see “the grass is always greener on the other side” in action, while also appreciating that experiencing alternative life views is an important part of growing up and self-discovery. And I enjoyed the way that for some, like Pearl and the oldest Richardson, Lexie, it was educational but didn’t necessarily change their trajectory, while for others, like the youngest Richardson, Izzy, it was absolutely transformational and upended her life course. It was a nice balance of outcomes that seemed very realistic for each within their experiences and personalities. And one more line about Izzy – WHOA! I mean, I like where the story leaves her, actually, and I’d kinda love a spin-off book about her. But her final act before the end of the book is actually crazy! (If you’ve read this already – I’d love to know what you thought about it…leave me a comment!)
I also loved/hated the way Ng looks at the importance of appearances and the truth that what the outside sees is not always fully reflective of what is happening on the inside. When I say love/hate, I mean I really loved how deeply, and from how many angles/perspectives she addressed this and I hated the primary character it all revolved around. This topic is one that, at least in my opinion, is very close to the heart of many millennials (of which I am one), who struggle with the dichotomy of needing to look like you have it all together (in the vein of the “American dream”) yet see the BS behind all that (in regards to how limited access is to said dream, as well as how limiting the dream itself is). As a result, I really got into that aspect of this book. And, because of who I am, choices I have made, and my general values, I actually hated Mrs. Richardson. She stood for all the high-handed, condescending, self-centered, unilluminated privileged ideals that make you feel like you’re a good person, but come from a place of self-congratulation and close-mindedness (specifically in regards to being willing to see why your world-view is not always, or ever, right) and is actually more dangerous than just straight up accepting being a bad person. Her actions were based off single-sided decisions/thoughts that caused so much pain/heartache that she truly had no idea about – I just could not stand her. And it’s because of all that that her daughters turn to Mia so clearly in general and in times of need, which truly sucks for both her and them, that their relationships were so paper thin. I realize I just went on a bit of a rant there…so I’m sorry. I know she had some of her own internal struggles and probably thought she was doing what was best for the people she cared about…and usually I try to give characters (and people) the benefit of the doubt. But the path to hell is paved with good intentions and I just couldn’t get over it to try to like her. At all. Regardless, clearly Ng does a great job eliciting emotions and exploring this topic!
The last thing that I want to mention is the custody battle. When reading the blurb about the book, this felt really out of left field and I struggled to see how it connected with the rest of the characters and story-line. But after reading the book and looking at Mia and Lexie’s decisions, then looking at how the custody battle plays out and makes people think about how they might act in similar situations (giving rise to a bit more thought and empathy than was in play at the beginning), I absolutely see how it all connects. And it acted as the perfect vehicle for the greater “educational” moments for all the youth in the book, and some of the adults, as they learn about how most things in life are not black and white, but instead myriad shades of grey. In addition, the consideration of race and cultural issues, and the importance of keeping one connected to their own traditions and history, is an important one. The way that “not seeing race” (a common and misguided refrain of these days) is explored from the lens of motherhood, a lens that is accessible for many, is an inspired way to teach about such an important topic. Credit to Ng for the insights and nuance in this facet of the book.
I have nowhere else to put this, so I’ll drop it here – I was really into the art aspects of this novel. Mia’s photography really brings together the different stories and is a great final “recognition” for each of the Richardson’s at the end. Plus, it’s just so creative in its own right! Overall, this was a fantastic family drama with a great message about how the “perfect” and most fulfilling life can, and should, look very different for different people. It was both a page-turning spectacle and an introspective examination, and Ng’s skill in pulling that juxtaposition off so smoothly is great. I can absolutely see why so many people have read and loved this book and I think you can count me among their ranks.