Celeste Ng’s new novel Little Fires Everywhere picks up in mid-stream right at the burning pyrotechnic of the youngest of the Richardsons’ brood of four children.
Izzy, the youngest, sets fire to burn down the house, “literally”, as “literally” is the eldest, Lexi’s catch-word.
The importance of the children’s perceptions of what happens is paramount for Ng’s novel as the three of the four children sit on top of a vehicle watching their mom, Mrs. Richardson—Elena Richardson—in her bathrobe in the front yard, aghast. Neighbors are both part of the spectacle and the gawkers at the spectacle on the sidewalks to the house.
Many people will notice that the place of the novel is itself a character. The story lends itself to Shaker Heights, Ohio, the town where the Richardsons live and where another set of characters, Mia and Pearl Warren, rent one half of the duplex from Mrs. Richardson.
So what is Shaker Heights like? The town thrives on order, as opposed to chaos, from pre-determined colors of houses to the colors of house curtains. And the formation of lawn to curb, the landscape of the driveways up to the houses, the lay-out of streets, all create the belief in harmony. There might not be any living founding Shakers in the time of the story, but their beliefs and ambitions of success and order ebb and wane from day to night and night to day in this otherwise secluded suburban paradise.
Now we know why the opening drama in which the Richardsons’ own home lights up by little fires everywhere inside the home, this conclusion to the story’s Shaker Heights leading up to this point is crucial. Ng runs on this conflict within the story.
The town of order, success and harmony suddenly lives a jolt of disorder and dissonance. What has happened?
Mia, mother of Pearl, who rents Elena’s duplex, is a quirky artist. From Mia, art brings on chaos. But do her often manipulated and wrangled photographs summon chaos into her being the mother, the homestead she needs to be to Pearl? Mia sees the world as she is an artist in this world. In this world, she is a genuine Mia bringing up Pearl and bringing out photography as her art.
Mainly, this quiet sanctum will come apart right at this point about motherhood. Elena is mother to four children as Mia is mother to one, Pearl. The trial of who is mother to a Chinese-American infant only takes apart issues of biological parents, adoptive parents, the interplay of a child’s heritage and the means to provide and raise a child in a welcoming community. The question uptakes the conventional wisdom of “it takes a village” in Little Fires Everywhere. How has Shaker Heights raised its children?
Ng populates the novel with the emotions, inner lives, the actions of children of suburbia, the conformity of a place, and the superficial surface of placid order. Mia and Pearl, taking a respite from the itinerant life they manage before Shaker Heights, would live with these people in their suburbia, in their place, and in their order.
Ng delivers a piece of writing that puts the home of her characters in the center. Little Fires Everywhere analyzes a place where if we think about our own home, our own sense of myopia may lack the vision of seeing beyond the small world that holds us back. Will the children of Shaker Heights step into the larger world beyond?
There is this intense tale about women, young or middle-aged, the choices and their parenting they can invoke from within themselves. Elena, the character of order, we see in her rules, a penchant or even a self-destructive need to live apart from any disruption from her finely planned life. Ng noticeably bids Elena with her formal title, “Mrs. Richardson”, throughout the novel rather than “Elena”.
We see the lines and boundaries drawn in by the morality and the ethics of both Elena and Mia. This only deepens as the rift between Elena and Mia becomes immeasurable between these two with diametrically-opposed sensibilities.
We see how these two main characters respond to the turns of events. At last, we also see through the eyes of the children to figure how these events will become lasting on all of them. Or, will they?
Mia’s art as a photographer sets the story into another path. So does Elena’s job as a small community newspaper reporter. Ng’s story-telling power finds its greatest draw through these two vocations. Through photography art and Elena’s ‘investigative’ campaign, Shaker Heights lives a community trauma and Elena’s family lives this trauma palpably. Where will the Richardsons go after the little fires inside their house swallow up their lives?