Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere has taken the world by a storm. The Goodreads Choice 2017 award winner, which has been turned into a new TV series starring Reese Witherspoon, is a moving and powerful story about teenage love, motherhood, and the dangers of trying to be ‘perfect’. It dissects race, wealth, class, privilege, and the current American society. But, really, these themes are just as important worldwide. In almost every country places like Shaker Heights exist, where these same issues are very real. Also, with a kaleidoscope of characters in this book, it’s impossible not to find someone you can relate to.
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 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 old family friends 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 an unexpected and devastating cost…
Rarely do I watch a TV series and then read the book it is based on, but for this one I made an exception. I watched this show with my mum and became instantly hooked as we binge watched the entire season in a matter of days. The book was no different. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down as I got more engrossed in the story.
There are a lot of things to marvel at with Little Fires Everywhere. It was a fascinating story that reminds us that people of all ages make mistakes, and no one has life figured out. Also, there is no such thing as ‘perfect’, because even the things that look perfect from the outside can be fractured on the inside.
One thing that Ng manages to do, however, is unsettle us. Little Fires Everywhere holds up a mirror to our own beliefs, and makes us question everything we thought we knew about life: How do we carry with us the things we regret? What made someone a mother, was it biology or was it love? Is love enough in a family or do we also need wealth? Is there way back once we cross that uncrossable line?
The thing I enjoyed most about this book was the message that Ng managed to show through the strength of every single character as well as in the main plot. The message that people are resilient. They can carry on despite the worst tragedies and circumstances, and through the worst heartaches. People find a way to survive, even if that means having to start over.
In the wake of Bebe’s loss, Mia and Izzy have a conversation about how people go on when they hit rock bottom:
“But is she going to be okay?”
“She’s going to survive, if that’s what you mean… She’s going to get through this. Because she has to.”
“But how?” Izzy could not believe that someone could endure this kind of pain and survive.
“I don’t know, honestly. But she will. Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way.” Mia racked her mind for an explanation. “Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago, when we were in Nebraska. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow.” She held Izzy at arm’s length, wiped her cheek with a fingertip, smoothed her hair one last time. “People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”
– Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
Earlier in the novel, when Moody finds out some news that devastates him, he, too, needs to find a way to continue.
“He felt as if he’d dived into a deep, clear lake and discovered it was a shallow, knee-deep pond. What did you do? Well, you stood up. You rinsed your mud-caked knees and pulled your feet out of the muck. And you were more cautious after that.”
― Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
We learn from the things that happen to us, and when our hearts break, we need to find a way to heal them, a way to carry on. Because the alternative is to remain motionless, and people are too strong for that. We are built to carry on in a crisis. We are more resilient than we allow ourselves to believe we are.