Genres: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
I received this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Little Fires Everywhere was one of the books coming out in 2017 that I was most looking forward to! And did Celeste Ng deliver. She certainly did.
Noriko at Diary of a Bookfiend and I started reading this book basically at the same time, and we chatted about it and let me tell you – her thoughts on it are spot on, she writes beautifully and you should definitely read her review!
Little Fires Everywhere tells the story of two families: the Richardsons, a wealthy family who lived in Shaker Heights since forever, and the Warrens, who just moved into the Richardson’s second apartment as tenants. Mia and Pearl Warren are as different from the Richardsons as it gets: they have never lived long anywhere, and moved dozens of times. Mia is an artist and takes up jobs to be able to make her art when it doesn’t sell enough to sustain both of them. Pearl is excited and nervous to move to Shaker Heights and make a new life there – one she plans on keeping forever, this time. When she and Moody Richardson become friends, they have no idea what will the consequences of this friendship be.
The beginning of the book starts innocently enough, describing the families and how Mrs. Richardson likes to keep her life nice and tidy, and do small generosities here and there. How Pearl is looking forward and anxious about her future in Shaker Heights, and such. It took me a few pages to really get into the book, as the start is rather slow and can feel like too many characters to tell apart, but then it starts to become engrossing to the point where you are really invested in the background stories, thoughts and lives of all the main characters.
As their lives get entangled, the magic of Celeste Ng’s writing starts: the entwining of all the characters brings friction that builds up and up, the the story then starts to read like a snowball: small and quiet, and suddenly it’s so big and coming fast at you. She has a unique talent for giving depth to characters, invoking empathy and portraying how “good people” can be racist and sexist, too.
As Pearl starts to be absorbed into the Richardson family, Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson’s children, is absorbed into the Warren’s. Izzy has a spark of rebellion and is constantly berated by her mother, who wants her to behave more like she is expected to, and finds in Mia someone to look up to, someone who understands her.
As much as she was an annoying and frustrating character, Mrs. Richardson surely is the one this book is about – she is a journalist stuck in an boring job, with four lovely children, a handsome husband and a good reputation in Shaker Heights, where she grew up in and where she wants to stay all her life. She’s proud of the community where people “are equals” and “see no race”. Her character serves to expose the hypocrisy of privileged people, who try to get rid of the guilt they feel for the privilege they know they have by doing small charity actions – while keeping score of all “generous” and “selfless” acts she does, like choosing the right family to rent her second apartment to – a good family who just needs, as she calls it, a little boost.
I could go on and on about that, but I’ll stop here.
[MILD SPOILER] The May Ling/Mirabelle part was absolutely heart-breaking and while really painful to read, it was a very essential part of the story and raises questions about empathy, fairness, second chances and being a poor, Chinese woman with a child and no safety net in a racist, sexist society.
While the book evolves slowly, it starts picking up pace and, by the last 20% of the book, the story has become a whirlwind of messiness and consequences, in a wonderful way! I was basically mentally screaming at the characters by then.
I was bothered by the loose ends the book leaves and, while I believe Celeste chose to do it so in order to imitate life in the sense that you have an uncertainty about the future and never get all the answers you want, I really wanted to get all the answers. But I do respect the way she chose to do that, despite my complaints. [END OF MILD SPOILER]
I loved that the book takes time to explore people’s motives, back stories and thought processes, but sometimes it felt a little too much for some characters that I didn’t care for enough to be that invested in. Apart from that, I loved everything about this book, from the writing style so vivid and emotional, to the characters, into whose skin was easy to slip to see the story through their eyes. It’s a gorgeous book and I highly recommend it!
Verdict: Celest Ng ended the game with this book and I am not sure I’ll ever be ok again. The story of all characters is explored in a beautiful way and the painful humanity of Little Fires Everywhere will make you think a lot about life, fairness vs. unfairness, privilege, hypocrisy etc. It’s set in the 1980s and reads like a contemporary, so if you like contemporaries and stories about families and community, I highly recommend it!