Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Goodreads: Little Fires Everywhere
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: ★★★★☆

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 started off slowly but quickly picked up as we learned more about the members of the Richardson and Warren families. Celeste Ng opens the story by introducing readers to a semi-chaotic fire scene, where the characters seem slightly defeated, and the big drama of the summer has just passed, but the buzz around the incident is still being discussed behind closed doors. This story covers such complex issues that I wished I had read this with a group of people because I would have loved discussing this during and after I finished the book.

“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.” 

This is a slow burn character driven family saga. It’s about motherhood, the struggles of being one and the desperation to become one, and the politics of a perfectly made community. It’s about being a teenager and trying to find where you fit in, whether at home or in school. It shows how you’re not immune to unwanted changes and disastrous events, no matter how perfectly you build a life for you and your family. It doesn’t matter what you think you and/or your loved ones deserve, people will be people and they will sometimes make wrong and selfish choices that you won’t understand. There are little fires everywhere. The build up in the story is well paced and how Ng writes made the tension so palpable, you can feel just how badly everything is going to come crashing down. It’s a bit like a snowball being rolled up and then pushed down a hill—it happens so quickly. 

Perhaps the best thing about this book is how it looks at relationships between friends, lovers, parents, and mothers and their children. All the characters are fully fleshed out, and even the side characters have background stories that allow you to build a connection to them. I’m surprised that I didn’t actually dislike any of the characters in this book. There’s no doubt that Elena Richardson was pretty awful most of the time; she did questionable things and made infuriating choices, but her character was so complex. Her struggle to keep within the boundaries of the rules she grew up with and set for herself was relatable. She would think about doing awful things to keep things the way they were, but in the next moment she would show her softer side and could empathize with those she opposed. Even Mia, who Celeste Ng clearly wrote as the “good mother” vs Elena’s “bad mother”, was imperfect, and I really liked that she painted her characters as not simply “black and white” and “good or bad” in their personalities and actions, but rather everyone is a mix of all of that, much like how it is in real life.

I loved how the teenagers bonded, although I did feel at times their relationships were a little toxic, especially between the Richardson children with Pearl and Mia. There was a dependency that grew, which wasn’t unrealistic but I thought it was a little unhealthy. Though seeing the Richardson children recognize their flaws, and watching them grow and learn through their interactions with the Warrens, was heartwarming; even as I wished that their growth was more profound or concrete at the end. The only characters I was a little disappointed with was Moody and Pearl, especially since the foundation of their friendship seemed so strong, only to have it unravel so horribly towards the end. Moody’s reactions/actions, although understandable as a teenager overcome with intense emotions, was particularly disappointing and I found that I couldn’t really forgive him for reacting the way he did, especially with the fallout.

A lot of people commented how the ending was unsatisfying and I do agree. I felt that it was too rushed and everything was wrapped up too neatly. Everyone went their own way without really facing any consequences for their actions, with the exception of the Warren’s who really felt the full brunt of it. A lot remained unresolved and Ng left it pretty open ended, but I also think it was kind of fitting that it ended that way. I was hesitant to read this one for so long because of the hype surrounding it, but if you can be patient and let the story slowly unfold for you, it’s definitely worth it! I’m so glad that participating in the #AsianReadathon and #APICelebrAsian month of May pushed me to finally pick it up. I’m now looking forward to reading Ng’s debut novel, and whatever she comes out with next!

Have you read Little Fires Everywhere? What did you think of it? Do you think it lived up to the hype? Let me know in the comments!

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