Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Penguin, 2017; 338 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Sometimes it’s when you read a book that shapes your view of it, and sometimes it’s the book you needed and got something else instead (even though not bad, not what you needed). Little Fires Everywhere was either poor timing for me (it followed up on a reading of a very different book that was more quirky and hopeful) or not what I needed to read at that time—although still wonderfully written. The book is timely in general, speaking to polarized themes of perceived right and wrong and consequences in society, and between those themes and the easy prose I was propelled forward, but I had my moments where I was hanging on hoping for redemption.
Ng’s novel starts off easy and clear; with the cataclysmic event of a family home burning down. We learn that characters are making quick and suspicious getaways in lieu of the the fire: boarders, a rebel daughter. And, once we know what will happen, then we hear as to why. The first half of the book introduces everyone—from homeowner in an almost Stepford neighborhood Elena to the boarders Mia and Pearl to Elena’s husband and four children—and how they all react to the scandal of Clinton and Lewinsky, and a more pressing local scandal involving a Solomon-like decision from the presiding judge in terms of child custody. Issues of abortion and surrogate pregnancy also lend to the arguments; and then, about half-way through the book, the story shifts focus from Elena and how much she played by the rules (at times I thought this to be restated a little too much, which might have lended to my reaction of the book) to Mia’s journey of creative insistence. Mia insists on going to art school, in spite of pragmatic parents, and she finds herself alone in not only the journey but in the creative process of photography:
To her parents the camera was less impressive. “You spent how much on that?” her mother asked, while her father shook his head. It looked, to them, like something from the Victorian era, balanced on a spindly pod, with a pleated belly like a bellows and a dark cloth that Mia ducked underneath. She tried to explain to them how it worked, but at the first mention of shifts and tilts their attention began to wander. Even her beloved Warren gave up at that point—“I don’t need to know how it works, Mi,” he told her at last, “I just want to see the pictures”—and Mia realized that she was crossing into a place where she would have to go alone.
But the creative process isn’t the only aspect of Mia’s life that she has to go alone, and from there the novel started to seriously bloom. Yes, we know why, over and over, Elena takes the sides that she does, but Mia’s life choices give us choices, too, as readers. In regards to the conflicts at the center of the novel, Mia seems to have more of a choice in her reactions than Elena (although, at the end of the novel we see that Elena sees the gaps in her reactions, even if the solutions to her issues are clumsy and assuming in the face of what she has to do); Mia has sat on both sides of the fence in her life, and every time she has she has had to a) do it alone, for the most part, and b) has gained some kind of empathy from it (even though Elena assumes not enough empathy). The novel gives a wonderful allegory of our polarized culture, and Ng smartly sets it during Clinton’s impeachment hearings, and I was glad to stay with it and discover the rich picture.