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Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires Everywhere is out today in the UK and I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour to celebrate its publication. Here’s what the blurb says about it:

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.

While putting people in little boxes, even large boxes with impeccable interior design, setting them strict rules and city ordinances to live by, which control everything from bin collection to the external colour scheme of their homes, may seem like a good idea in theory, it’s no guarantee that they’ll play their part and always stick to the script. All the best intentions can go awry once you add people, with all their competing egos and beliefs, polarising politics, differing dynamics and underlying tensions, to the mix.

Little Fires Everywhere focuses on two families whose lives become entwined and will never be the same again. It hones in on the roles we play within a family and the wider community, how those dynamics are set up, and how little it takes to upset them. Little Fires Everywhere is so well written that I read it in two heady sittings, reluctant to put it down. This story of one seemingly content and compliant community stirred up by the arrival of two outsiders reads like a literary psychological thriller and I was quickly drawn into the lives of the respectable Richardson family, the more nomadic newly-arrived Warrens, and their friends and neighbours. Celeste Ng moves seamlessly around the carefully-planned streets of Shaker Heights, taking me right to the heart of this community almost before I realised how far in I was.

Celeste Ng draws a distinction between characters in the most interesting of ways, for example, Mrs Richardson and her friend Mrs McCullough are rarely called by their first names, whereas Mia (Warren) and Bebe (Chow) more often than not are. Then there’s the duck pond opposite the Richardson’s house, which I can’t imagine is there by accident, thanks not only to the city planners but more crucially the book’s author. It made me think of how ducks glide over the water while paddling away underneath it. I thought this was like the inhabitants of Shaker Heights, who are all striving to live up to the high expectations put on them as part of this perfectly planned-out community, and just about managing to pull this off until Mia and her daughter Pearl land and cause some ripples. Until I remembered how one of the Richardson’s sons, Moody, can’t ever recall having seen ducks on that pond, only big, brash Canadian geese. Which would make the long-term inhabitants, including his family, the geese in this scenario. They’re decidedly louder and more brash when it comes to their ambitions and aspirations while those with less material wealth – the Warrens, Bebe Chow, Mr Yang – more closely resemble ducks paddling to stay afloat.

At a time when communities, and even families, are divided over certain issues on both sides of the Atlantic, Little Fires Everywhere seems an especially pertinent and timely novel, exploring as it does community, parenthood, politics, sexual and racial issues. It shows how damaging people’s polarised beliefs can be and how problematical it is to classify something as being either wholly right or wholly wrong, when circumstances often need a more nuanced approach. It shows how barely contained some tensions are and how secrets have a habit of getting out through the cracks. It also demonstrates how sometimes an outsider can see and understand us better than our close family members, and how we’d all benefit from taking a step back and trying to see things from a different perspective.

The events in Little Fires Everywhere take place before the advent of social media – some of the book’s High School students are only just using pagers – but it’s a timely reminder in this age of photoshop-perfect Instagrammed lives how different things can be behind closed doors or underneath the gloss than at first appears. No matter how much planning goes into something, there is no such thing as perfect, especially when it comes to human beings and their relationships. They’re only ever going to be one thing, and that’s messy. After all, if you have Little Fires Everywhere, it’s going to be hard getting them all under control at the same time. And Celeste Ng shows that to devastating effect here. Highly recommended.  

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is published by Little, Brown in the UK and is out today as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. For more about Celeste Ng and her books, visit her Author Website or follow her on Facebook or on Twitter.

My thanks to Grace Vincent at the publisher Little, Brown for sending me a copy for review. 

The UK blog tour for Little Fires Everywhere runs until Tuesday 14th November and you can follow it through the hashtag #LittleFiresEverywhere on Twitter. Here are today’s blogs: 

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