Summary: 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 alluring 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 the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.
Genre(s): Adult, Contemporary
Representation: single mother (main character), Chinese immigrants (secondary characters), Asian author
Content warnings: mild sexual content, underage drinking/smoking, racism, arson, dysfunctional family relations
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This had its ups and downs, but I connected with almost all the characters very quickly so I was invested all the way through. The constant point-of-view changes were a little disorienting (which was also one of my major concerns with Ng’s Everything I Never Told You) but once we start getting into flashbacks and longer scenes it levels out. There are so many different experiences and views represented in this book, so ultimately I think the multiple POVs do work really well for the narrative that Ng put together.
As someone who’s fascinated by family dynamics, both between siblings and between parents/offspring, I found this premise particularly appealing. Each of the Richardson children has a very different approach to life and a slightly different view of their siblings and of their parents, and Pearl’s and Mia’s interactions with them (and each other) add an extra level of nuance. And as the daughter of Asian immigrants, I really appreciated the subplots addressing the unique difficulties of that experience — although this was presented through the eyes of minor characters, they felt just as real (if, naturally, less prominent) as the main cast. That is to say, all of the characters were wonderfully and frustratingly complex. I laughed with them, I got angry on their behalf, I wanted to yell at them for failing to show empathy towards each other.
Partway through, I was also reminded that it’s been quite a while since I last read a novel about contemporary high school — the requisite red-Solo-cups and grinding/humping-as-dancing loud parties, fixation on virginity and sex, and awful principal and teachers — and honestly I don’t miss it. As a college student I know now that most high school experiences don’t look anything like that (my own, as a color guard/marching band geek and generally antisocial person, was about as far as it gets), and since I have that experience I no longer see the appeal in that stereotypical HS narrative. (Also, I know this is a 2017 release but I think a lot of contemporary novels, especially in YA, are starting to move away from that specific characterization of high school — or at least I’m learning to avoid them.)
And yet I barely rolled my eyes at the peaks of the romance subplots: somehow, Ng made them compelling despite the tropes used. They’re messy and dramatic, but so is life; and while they were a significant part of the story, they did contribute narrative value without overpowering the major plotlines.
My biggest gripe might just be that the ending simultaneously felt complete and left me wanting more, which is of course not at all a bad thing. Basically, this was one of those books where I couldn’t explain why I loved it as much as I did — I just did.