Originally published November 2017
Do you make choices or do choices make you?
Celeste Ng’s sophomore effort, Little Fires Everywhere, is a glorious character study, comparing and contrasting the two different paths we can take as we emerge from adolescence into adulthood — one a carefully crafted, planned-to-the-last-detail existence and the other road, on which one’s adventurous spirit consumes the soul and throws caution to the wind.
On one path, we find Mrs. Richardson — wife, mother of four and a local reporter in her lifelong home of Shaker Heights, Ohio. On the other is Mia Warren, and artist and single mother to 15-year-old Pearl. The two paths cross when Mia comes to town and rents an apartment from Mrs. Richardson. And, much like real life, when control crashes into chaos, sparks fly.
The detail with which Ng paints these two women is exquisite. Throughout the book, Mrs. Richardson is almost always, “Mrs. Richardson.” She has a name — Elena — but to refer to her by that would be to crack the veneer that is her planned life in her planned community. For one brief moment in college, there was a possibility she might forgo the husband, house and kids to follow a passion, but it was and remains the road not taken.
So when Mia — always Mia — blows into town with a mysterious past and a devotion to her art so sincere she is genuinely unconcerned with creature comforts like the promise of food in the refrigerator and a bed to sleep in, Mrs. Richardson’s life is upended. And the shock wave reverberates throughout her family. Trip, Lexie, Moody and Izzy all feel the effects from the new stranger in town when Mia’s daughter Pearl shows up at school.
With Moody’s friendship, Pearl finds herself in a world unfamiliar — the traditional family dynamic. Mother, father, home, siblings … it’s a life completely unknown, and she’s immediately drawn to the comfort in its consistency. Over time, she discovers what we all already know — that often times, what we see on the outside is not the truth at all. Those that appear to have it all together are falling apart, and the ones that come off as a little crazy are the fiercest empaths.
Ng also takes care to explore what it means to be a mother, with Mrs. Richardson and Mia finding themselves at odds when their friends, Mrs.McCullough and Bebe, become entangled in a brutal custody dispute. Does the promise of a “better” life outweigh the physical maternal bond? In exploring the mother-daughter dynamic, Ng forces the reader to revisit their own set of beliefs, and through this storyline, Mrs. Richardson and Mia are able to experience the roads they did not take, for better or worse.
There’s so much to break down and so much to debate, making Little Fires Everywhere and outstanding pick for book club discussions. What’s more, it’s a thoroughly engaging read, right from the get go. If you’re looking for something for a long Thanksgiving weekend, Ng is your girl.