I don’t know if this book needs much introduction, it was the talk of a lot of book clubs when it 1st came out and in some ways for me, it went under my radar, it wasn’t until I read Celeste Ng’s other book, Everything I Never Told You, that I was really taken with her writing. I will also admit that when I found out it was being made into a television show, starting Reese Withersppon and Kerry Washington, I knew I needed to get reading quickly, but clearly I’m still behind! Anyhow, this week on the blog, we review Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, check it out!
The book takes place in a picturesque, “planned”, somewhat controlled neighbourhood called Shaker Heights, where they have a rule and structure to everything right down to the length your grass should be. In moves Mia & Pearl Warren into Elena Richardson’s rental property, Pearl is quickly taken into Mrs. Richardson’s family, getting along with all of the 4 children. But things take a sour turn when a custody battle over an adopted child hits a little too close to home for everyone and Mrs Richardson decides she doesn’t like the fact that Mia has remained so aloof and distant. Digging up Mia’s past, Mrs Richardson begins to uncoil the secrets Mia has worked hard to keep buried.
Elena Richardson: 3rd generation Shaker Heights resident, perfectionist, local busy body. Highly organized and extremely driven and linear in her thinking.
Mia Warren: Nomadic artist, she is a recluse and doesn’t share much about her past or about her life, she is resilient and very smart and resourceful. Recently moves into Mrs Richardson’s rental property and eventually gets a job as their maid.
Pearl Warren: Mia’s 15 year old daughter, who befriends Moody Richardson and soon becomes part of the Richardson family, she welcomes this extended family as it has always been her and her mother. As she is promised this will be their last move, she opens up more and begins to make connections she previously never bothered to. She begins a relationship with Trip and becomes Moody and Lexie’s biggest confidante.
Moody, Trip, Lexie, Izzy and Mr Richardson: The Richardson clan- they are all some form of an All-American stereotype; the jock-womanizing brother (Trip), the emotionally pensive brother (Moody), the pretty materialistic daughter (Lexie) and the wild-rebellious child (Izzy). Lastly with the hard working, busy lawyer father. Pearl comes into the fray in some ways she is connected to each sibling in such a different way, it’s interesting but also odd how they never realize it and this doesn’t bring them any closer.
Mr & Mrs McCullough: Couple and long time friend of Elena Richardson. Adopt a child, Mirabelle aka May Lin, who are then approached by Mirabelle’s biological mother, Bebe and a legal and social dispute begins. The court drama drags on for months, but creates divisions and tests allegiances over who Mirabelle should ultimately reside with.
Bebe Lin: May Lin’s biological mother, a hard working, struggling immigrant, who is completely ripped apart by her decision to give her daughter up. Turns her life around and upon locating her daughter, would like a second chance at raising her.
Break it down
“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
I’m going to get straight to it, if you are ever looking for the definition of the term “entitled white saviour”- Elena Richardson’s character is literally the embodiment of that. Her character triggered a lot of frustration in me, her insistence on maintaining the appearance of perfection. Her entitlement in feeling it’s her job and almost civic duty to find out the skeletons in Mia’s closet all the while missing so much of the flags in her own household. The appearance of perfection and idealism is so important to her that she will likely stop at nothing, from bribery, to breaking the law all because she believes she has the actual right to in order to uncover the truth. She genuinely can’t process people who aren’t like her and I feel like this was her desire to change or mold people in some way to be closer to her ideal. Her literal desire to have it all exposed because of some irrational thought process that Mia helping Bebe attempt to get her biological child back, meant she doesn’t get the right to keep her past in the past. She’s genuinely so out in left field I couldn’t relate and found myself disliking her and I really tried to see things from her perspective, I just couldn’t. But, I loved the fact that Mia was much smarter than Mrs Richardson gave her credit for and her decision to be “closer” to the Richardson’s as a way to keep an eye on Elena, which I also feel allowed her to find some sort of kinship with Izzy. Maybe it’s because Izzy drives Elena crazy much or as if she sees herself in Izzy.
The discussion and court trial over May Lin/Mirabelle’s parental custody brought up a very interesting conversation/theme within the book and ultimately it lead Mrs Richardson to uncovering the fact that Mia had essentially “stolen” Pearl from Mr & Mrs Ryan, who she had agreed to be a surrogate for. I definitely can understand why this was dramatic and the buildup was pretty intense in the book, but to be honest, this wasn’t the bombshell that I expected, so when Elena approached Mia with the information, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I was also disappointed in Mia’s reaction, or lack there of, but then again, maybe her win was Izzy. The fact that she saw Izzy, she didn’t treat her like the wild/crazy one. She took her under her wing and just saw her for who she was. The subtle mentioning of little fires and scorching things as a form of rebirth and renewal- did kind of feel like she was giving her a subliminal message, knowing full well Izzy was just the right kind of loose cannon to pull it off, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t cheering Izzy on at every turn and every dramatic outburst.
The idea of starting again, the ability to relay your roots, be it personal or physically is a common theme in the book, Mia and Pearl’s vagabond lifestyle, Bebe moving to the US to begin a new life, only to steal her daughter and begin again back in China. Izzy running away, in order to escape the pressures of living under her mother’s roof. Even Mia’s comment to Izzy about needing to burn things down in order to come back better; it works in nature and it can work in humans, after all Mia was constantly doing just that. Of course this belief system is not something Elena adheres to and by the conclusion of the book, she is left devastated, not only my the loss of her family home, but the fact that her overbearing and negative behaviours towards Izzy pushed her to arson and leaving home. Her biggest loss, was her child, which in some ways I found to be extremely ironic.
“It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
Q: How is motherhood defined throughout the book? How do choice, opportunity, and circumstances impact different characters’ approach to motherhood?
A: It’s interesting the vast, varying viewpoints each character has regarding motherhood and the idea of what classified as a deserving mother. Bebe was too poor and of lower means which meant she couldn’t be a fit mother, especially since she gave little May Lin away, so that in Elena and Mrs McCullogh’s view meant she couldn’t be redeemed. From Mia’s perspective, she believed that as Bebe is May’s biological mother, she deserved to have her child. For Elena, motherhood was almost a given so she saw it all in a linear way, but I also don’t know if despite her kids growing up in a wealthy home and never wanting for anything, I don’t know how much of a mother she was to her children. Yet, Mia, who was the mystery, the artist, intriguing but also seeming to have no roots, was the one who was much more emotionally supportive to some of the Richardson kids more than Elena. I feel like Celeste Ng was attempting to suggest that there is no one way to be a mother and in some ways we can never give and have it all, something, some part of motherhood will have to take a back seat. In Mia’s case it’s not having a home in a singular location, but she gives her daughter a wide view point, she is openminded and well balanced; she isn’t spoilt. Compared to Elena’s children, who in some way are all spoilt, they do and get what they want, they seemingly do whatever they like without any consequences, but can Mrs Richardson really say she knew her children? Lexie had an abortion and she didn’t even notice, she was so focused on trying to expose Mia that she missed so many signs and events in her own home. Then the idea of Mr and Mrs McCullogh, who for sure would have been very hands on parents and May Lin/Mirabelle would have wanted for nothing, but they wouldn’t have been able to give her ancestry, a connection to her culture and her roots.
Q: There are many different kinds of mother-daughter relationship in the novel. Which ones did you find most compelling? Do mothers have a unique ability to spark fires, for good and ill, in us?
A: To me, the most compelling was Elena and Izzy, because it ultimately led to the fire and the burning down of the Richardson’s home. If she had taken the time to get to know her daughter as a person, not as the wild one, not as the one she wanted and thought she was protecting. If she merely dropped the facade and connected with her daughter as a person and not as a robot, then it wouldn’t have pushed Izzy to run away. I think Mia & Pearl’s is also compelling, because of how obedient Pearl is to her mother. They had an interesting relationship in the fact that Mia trusted Pearl and allowed her to be herself, whether that’s because she is a free spirit so she understands the freedom of it. But the vast contrasts between the households was very interesting.
I appreciated the touches of discussion on racism and the duality of that which the context of a town which believes itself to not be racist or in any way from the Utopian theme it wanted to project. Lixie’s boyfriend Brian mentions his race a few times and while I accept that Lexie isn’t racist, but some of the comments she makes to him, suggests at the very least she’s very naive and carries a hint of privilege she isn’t even aware she possesses. The subject of May Lin was the most direct way Celeste Ng tried to make a point. I agree May should be with her mother if she would be safe and taken care of, her mother offers her a touchstone to her culture. Yes, the McCullough’s wanted a child desperately and yes their journey to parenthood wasn’t an easy or cheap one, but what they failed to understand was just how important it is when raising a child outside of your culture. I don’t know why they didn’t feel they couldn’t collaborate with Bebe in order for May Lin to not lose her connection with her biological family. But their idea of introducing her culture to her was buying an Asian art piece, they were extremely blinded to the fact that they essentially wanted to white wash May Lin.
Would I recommend this book?
100%, the book read like a drama and so it’s no surprise it is now an Amazon limited series, so you know what I will be doing after this review! I read through this book very quickly; it is very much a page turner. I very much look forward to watching the show and seeing how some of these themes play out on the screen and I’m sure the issue of race will be explored at a deeper level.