REVIEW: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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Published by: Penguin Press

Release Date: September 12, 2017
Genres: Women’s Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Print
Rating: five-stars
Source: Book of the Month

Description (Amazon): When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs. Novel explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

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  • Written in third person omniscient point of view
  • Chapters focus on various main characters:
    • Elena Richardson = suburban mom; works as a local news reporter
    • Bill Richardson = hands-off dad; works as a lawyer
      • Lexie = cool girl
      • Trip = handsome jock
      • Moody = sensitive guy
      • Izzy = quirky girl; black-sheep of the family
    • Mia Warren = mysterious, single mom; free-spirited artist
      • Pearl = very smart; girl-next-door
    • The McCulloughs = friends of the Richardsons; wealthy; in the process of adopting a Chinese baby, May Ling, who they renamed Mirabelle
    • BeBe Chow, May Ling’s biological mother; poor immigrant
      • “Where I am going to get money for a lawyer?” she asked. She glanced down at her clothing–black pants and a thin white button-down–and Pearl understood suddenly: this is her work uniform; she’d left work without even bothering to change. “In the bank I have six hundred and eleven dollars. You think a lawyer help me for six hundred and eleven dollars?”

  • Set in the late 1990s in Shaker Heights, a quiet, progressive suburb of Cleveland, Ohio

pros and cons

  • Well-Developed Characters: Ng is a master at exploring how characters’ pasts affect their psychology and their decisions. Every character’s mistake makes sense after carefully consideration of his/her insecurities, personality, and traumas.
    • “Until now her life had been one of mute, futile fury. In the first week of school, after reading T. S. Eliot, she had tacked up sings on all the bulletin boards: I HAVE MEASURED MY LIFE WITH COFFEE SPOONS and DO I DARE TO EAT A PEACH? and DO I DARE DISTURB THE UNIVERSE? The poem made her think of her mother, doling out her creamer in a precise teaspoon…and of Lexie and Trip and everyone like them, which to Izzy felt like everyone.”

  • Plot Twists/Emotional Punch: The second half of the book is filled with plot twists and Ng does not hold back on emotional punches! I was teary-eyed while reading many sections (a rare occurrence for me as a reader)!
    • “So I keep on knocking and ringing. Sooner or later she have to come out and then I can talk to her.” She glanced at Mia. I just want to see my baby again. I think, I can talk with these McCulloughs and get them to understand. But she will not come out.”

  • Exploration of Motherhood & Importance of Cultural Heritage: The custody battle between the wealthy white American family vs. the poor Chinese single mother was the turning point of the novel. I viscerally felt the anxiety and desperation in the courtroom. I was just as conflicted as the residents of the Shaker Height. Before reading the book, I assumed that most readers (including myself) would automatically side with the immigrant single mother. However, the interior monologue of the McCulloughs, who desperately loved and wanted Mirabelle, was so heartbreaking. It didn’t matter how privileged they were–we all can sympathize with those who desire to have a family. This book would be a fantastic book-club pick because you are sure to debate for hours on the following questions:
    • Do you believe in giving a second chance to a mother who made a mistake?
    • Do you think the fact that BeBe is the baby’s biological mother should factor into the judge’s decision?
    • What do you think about the gap in wealth? Does it matter that one side is able to provide better opportunities for the child?
    • Do you think one side is able to provide more love for the child?
    • How important is it for a child to understand her cultural heritage? Is it possible for an adoptive family to provide that?
  • Social Commentary: Minorities in America often experience casual racism from well-meaning people. If you are not familiar with this term, here are some examples of everyday racism. Since Shaker-Heights is very liberal, the residents consider themselves to be so “color-blind” that they are not aware that they perpetuate many negative stereotypes or that there are racial tensions within their “perfect” community. This is especially evident during the trial,
  • “‘What have you done, in this time she’s been with you, to connect her to her Chinese culture?’ ‘Well…Pearl of the Orient is one of our favorite restaurants. We try to take her there once a month…We try to be very sensitive to these issues wherever we can…Like for her first birthday, we wanted to get her teddy bear…There was a brown bear, a polar bear, and a panda, and we thought about it and decided on the panda. We thought perhaps she’d feel more of a connection to it.'”

  • *Groan* It’s like saying that you can familiarize yourself with American culture by eating at McDonalds and buying a stuffed bald-eagle. I was surprised that Ng made an very explicit critique of the emasculation of Asian males. It’s an issue that has received very little media attention and I am glad that Ng is increasing awareness.
  • “An Angry Asian man didn’t fit the public’s expectations, and was therefore unnerving. Asian men could be socially inept and incompetent and ridiculous, like a Long Duk Dong, or at best unthreatening and slightly buffoonish, like a Jackie Chan. They were not allowed to be angry and articulate and powerful.

  • No Character Was Made the Villain: Perhaps, the characters who are closest to being antagonists are Mrs. Richardson and Mrs. McCullough. However, both characters have redemptive qualities–they love their children and try to live according to their values. At the end of the books, I didn’t have a least favorite character (though, I did have a favorite character: Izzy).
  • “‘It’s not a requirement that we be experts in Chinese culture. They only requirement is that we love Mirabelle. And we do. We want to give her a better life.’ She continued to cry, and the judge dismissed her.”  

  • Other Pros: Wonderful descriptions of Mia’s artistic process, and conversation on the exploitation of the financially-insecure & discussion on reproductive rights.

pros and cons

  • Cliche Basis of Characterization: Though, Ng was successful in eventually making her characters complex, it bothers me that they could still be summed up in three word descriptions. For instance, calling Mrs. Richardson “the stereotypical suburban mom” is justified even at the end of the book.
  • “Mrs. Richardson had, her entire existence, lived an orderly and regimented life. She weighed herself once a week, and although her weight did not fluctuate more than the three pounds her doctor assured her was normal, she took pains to maintain herself. Each morning she measured exactly one half cup of Cheerios, the serving size indicated on the box, using the flowered plastic measuring cup she’d gotten from Higbee’s as a new bride.”

  • Very Description Heavy: Readers who are not fans of literary fiction might get bogged-down by Ng’s extremely description-heavy writing style, especially during the first half of the book. To be completely honest, it took me weeks to get through the entire novel because I kept putting down the book then begrudgingly picking it up again. But am glad I persevered because the second half definitely makes the book worth reading!
  • “A toothpick, inserted into a standard keyhole and snapped off flush, is a marvelous thing. It causes no damage to the lock, yet it prevents the key from entering, so the door cannot be opened. It is not easily removed without a pair of needle-nosed tweezers, which are often not handy and take some time to procure. The more impatient the key wielder, the more firmly and insistently the key is jammed into the keyhole, the more tenaciously the toothpick will cling to the innards of the lock, and the longer it will take to extract it even wit the right equipment…”

overall

Little Fires Everywhere is an intricate novel about family&belonging and an examination of racial issues. The engrossing second-half completely makes up for the slow start. It is a five star read!

I purchased the book from Book of the Month, a monthly box subscription service that offers specially curated, recent releases (with free shipping) for $13.99 each month. If you would like to receive a new hardcover book AND a sturdy canvas tote (on your first order) for just $9.99, use this referral link.

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