I’ve spent the better part of my weekend cuddled up on the sofa with a copy of LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, many cups of coffee and my cat Gatsby. With the immersive experience that this novel offers, it has been the best time for me all week. This was one of those reads that would be perfect as a book club pick, because right now I feel like pouring over the details and nuances in this novel with someone who has read it too.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE is set in Shaker Heights, a small town in Ohio. Born out of the utopian ideal of a planned community, Shaker Heights maintains the original values of “Thoughtful panning, a belief in equality and diversity. Truly seeing everyone as an equal.” In fact, as one character puts it, “No one sees race here (Shaker Heights).” The novel follows the events that lead to the burning down of the Richardsons’ house. Who set the fire and what was their motive? There are two major plot directives in this book – the newcomers in town Mia and her daughter Pearl, and the debate over the adoption of a Chinese baby by one of the towns’ rich white couple.
The town and its ideals play a huge role in shaping the characters, especially Elena Richardson, or Mrs Richardson as she’s referred to in the novel. The people of Shaker Heights are rule-followers, not rule-flouters like Mia, the newcomer in town who becomes a tenant of the Richardsons in one of their houses. Mia is a photography artist who moves around for her art, but this time Mia and her daughter are settling down for good. Her 15 year old daughter Pearl quickly becomes friends with the Richardson children, especially Moody and Lexie. Mia’s backstory and her work as an artist was some of my favorite parts in the novel. Pearl was also an interesting character to follow, especially as she begins to observe the Richardsons and becomes more involved in their lives.
This is a novel about “race, class and privilege,” as stated by Ng herself. A major thread is when long-time family friends of the Richardsons, the McCollaughs, decide to adopt an abandoned Chinese baby. When the mother comes back into picture the whole town is divided on the issue – should the baby stay with the McCollaughs who are a rich family who can love her and provide all that the child needs and desires, or should she be returned to the poor, immigrant mother who made a mistake but wants her back? Which side should win? Which side is right? Is motherhood just about love or does a baby’s culture and race matter? Ng looks at both sides of the coin, and gives both sides fair representation. The major issue addressed here is of culture and race, and I felt Ng provided enough insight for the reader to really consider the issue and think about it.
The issue of cross-cultural adoption is one I’ve never had to think about because we don’t see it in Saudi Arabia, but we have a lot of cross-cultural marriages here so I am interested in how couples navigate the meeting of cultures. I was pretty much an outsider and clueless about the adoption issue, so reading Ng’s novel helped me gain better insight into why it can be a problem – and also why it’s a problem if you’re ill-equipped to deal with it. It also made me think about the identity that parents lend to children, simply because of their natural heritage. When Mrs McCollaugh says she’s started hanging up Asian paintings in their house I wondered about the perception of what culture and heritage even means when it comes to identity. Art is something anyone can learn about, but the problem I guess lies in the connectivity a child might feel because of the way he/she looks. It’s about the way a whole culture functions, the langauge, food, the ease of just being in that community because you’re not different – not just paintings.
And so, motherhood is a massive theme in LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, especially paired with the want for a baby, a child. The novel explores a few characters who desire to become parents and the lengths they go to to acquire a child. It really made me think about what a child represents to people, especially women who are unable to conceive. This tied back to my thoughts on STAY WITH ME by Ayobami Adebayo, which was another 2017 release that explored this theme.
What’s really admirable in LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE is Ng’s work on her characters’ development – it is multi-faceted, deep and very inquisitive. Each character’s background and life is explored, their stories laid out for the reader. While I didn’t fully connect to every character (like Moody), I felt there were enough details for me to try to understand them. In terms of the people in this book, another thing the novel explores is the huge disasters that can be caused by misunderstandings and assumptions.
Ng’s writing alone is a reason to read her work, especially if you’re a writer or someone who enjoys character-driven stories. The novel’s flow is so fluid that I felt completely immersed in the story and even forgot to have my lunch. I loved the unravelling of Mrs Richardson’s character – I felt it was one of the novel’s strengths, especially as she almost becomes a representation of Shaker Heights. I was a little disappointed by the lack of strong Asian characters – I liked the focus on outsider perspective that Ng writes in this book, but I felt that the two Asian stereotypes – a helpful and kind Asian neighbour who makes a very brief appearances and a desperate and hysterical mother – further marginalized the group. However, the issue for me is pacified a bit in the face of the brilliant work that Ng puts in revealing the understated racism and privilege of the rich families in the book.
Some Takeaways from LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE:
- Brilliant writing and compelling characters.
- Insight into the cross-culture adoption debate.
- Sharp and witty social commentary from Ng.
So thankful to Little, Brown and Celeste Ng for including me in this fantastic blog tour. Do check out all the other bloggers taking part in this tour.
Author’s Web: celesteng.com