“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

Genre: General Fiction (Adult)Little Fires Everywhere
Pub. Date: Sept. 13, 2017
Publisher: The Penguin Press

Celeste Ng’s second novel revisits many of the themes that were in her award-winning debut book (a novel I thoroughly enjoyed), “Everything I Never Told You”:  race, family, and the debatable advantages of similarity.  “Little Fires Everywhere” takes place in the suburban town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where there are strict rules to keep the town picture perfect, such as the colors you can paint your house, how high your lawn is permitted to grow before it needs to be mowed.  Garbage cans are not permitted to be placed in front of the house, (even on garbage pick up day) and other obnoxious rules.  “Little Fires” has been a best seller for months.  I am wondering how many readers are aware that Shaker Heights is a real town in Ohio that was planned to be a utopia.   “In 1905, business partners and brothers Oris Paxton and Mantis James Van Sweringen began purchasing the settlement’s original 1,366 acres to develop a scenic residential suburb.  They based their plans on the popular Garden City movement.  Their intention was to create a suburban retreat, connected to the industrial powerhouse of nearby Cleveland but insulated from the bustle of the city: a place built on notions of harmony and cooperation.”   Personally, I think this concept screams of the beginnings of “white flight.”  And, sadly, as well as the current administration in the White House.   I admit I didn’t spend too much time researching Shaker Heights.   Still, I believe these rules were enforced until the 1980s, when the federal government more or less stopped enforcing housing rules.

This story takes place in 1997 and the rules still very much apply, maybe not on legal papers, but in the minds of those on the housing board.   The unwelcome change is not about a family of color moving into town but rather an unmarried artist, along with her 15-year old daughter.   This unconventional artist is more interested in making art than making money.   (I know, shocking.  No wonder she caused such an uproar).  They move into town and become the tenants in a rental house of the town’s most affluent upstanding citizen and wife who has teenage children of her own.  The tale begins when the house of the outwardly perfect-seeming family is burning to the ground.  No family member questions that it is their youngest offspring, always the rebel, who is the culprit of the fire.  We just don’t know why a 13-year old would do such a thing.  The novel then goes back in time to eleven months earlier, when the artist and her daughter first appear.  They rent a tiny one bedroom house owned by the wealthy mother who likes to rent to those who wouldn’t usually be able to afford to live in such a town.  In exchange for rent, the artist becomes her landlord’s cleaning woman.  The landlord mom is proud of her charity and sees herself as a philanthropist.

Throughout the novel, the author lays down the stepping stones that lead to the front gate of the burning house.  There is good character development throughout the plot, which revolves around the two mothers and their offspring.  Both mothers are baffled by the others’ morals and lifestyles. They clash with each other while simultaneously their children befriend one other.  Slowly, Ng lets us into their psyches and hidden pains.  The author does a superior job with all the adolescent characters, nailing teenage voices, feelings, crushes and sexuality as well as the ever-thorny subject of class.   One teenage girl has her own credit card while the other’s mother does not even own one.  One girl has her own car while the other has lived in a car.  Ng also introduces a heartbreaking local custody battle.  A one-year-old girl is wanted by both her Chinese immigrant mother and the white couple who has raised the baby.  The immigrant mother happens to be friends with the bohemian artist, which enhances the tensions between herself and her landlady/employer who sides with the white family.  One does not need to read between the lines to realize that there is more to this novel than why planned communities are destined to fail.  The book’s themes revolve around motherhood, planned and unplanned pregnancies, surrogacy, abortion, and adoption.   Most importantly it has the reader wondering just what magic ingredients make for a good mother versus a disastrous one.  Little fires are typical in a family and they are normally easy to extinguish.   How did the family dynamics in this novel create such an unstoppable blaze?  Although this is a question that has been asked many times before, Ng is such a talented writer that I still enjoyed her version of a familiar tale.

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