Friday, September 22, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere: Privilege, Parenting in the Suburbs

There is a TON going on in Celeste Ng's terrific new novel, Little Fires Everywhere — but for this novel, it's a strength, not a weakness. A huge cast of characters create all sorts of problems for each others, sometimes purposefully, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes just unthinkingly. It makes for a thrilling, fast-paced, drama-infused novel about everything from privilege to teen pregnancy to long-held family secrets.

Set in 1998 in the quiet carefully planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland where Ng herself lived as a kid), the story is about a clash between two families that couldn't be more different. Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl live in a rental house owned by the Richardsons, an upper-class family with four high-school aged kids, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy.

Much like the community she lives in,  Mrs. Richardson has rigorously ordered her entire life — college, marriage, steady job (she's a journalist for the local newspaper), and children. Mia, on other hand is a fly-by-the-seat of her pants avant-garde photographer. She and Pearl have criss-crossed the country, moving on whenever Mia's well of inspiration dries up. But now, Mia has decided to settle down for a bit and let Pearl be a kid, make some friends, form some connections. And it works: Pearl becomes fast friends with the Richardson kids, and idealizes their steady normal life, while they in turn think her mobility is fascinating.

The novel literally starts a fire — specifically, the Richardson's house, but we don't know why. It's just suspected that the youngest daughter Izzy finally lost her mind, lighting "little fires everywhere" throughout the house. Then we back up and get to know the families and their interactions. But the novel really gets going after about 100 pages when friends of the Richardsons — the McCulloughs — have adopted an Asian daughter abandoned at a fire station a year ago. The birth mother, a woman named Bebe — who happens to be a friend of Mia's from the Chinese restaurant at which she works — wants the child back. Bebe had left her daughter at the fire station during a bout of anxiety and depression (she'd moved to across the country with a boyfriend, who promptly leaves her penniless and friendless when he finds out she's pregnant). Now that she's better, she's been trying desperately to find her daughter, and when Mia makes the connection between Mrs. Richardson's friend's adopted daughter and Bebe's lost daughter, Bebe desperately tries to reclaim her. The ensuing legal battle divides the community, and the two families.

Part of the point of the novel is about how easy it is to cover up or not be penalized for mistakes when you're wealthy and white. That parachute, however, does not exist without money and privilege. As well, the novel shows how money and privilege can sometimes erode empathy. There are several moments that illustrate this, but one in particular: Bebe is given once-a-week visitation rights of her daughter until the case is decided, and Mrs. McCullough is annoyed that Bebe can't let her know more than a day ahead of time when she'll come. Bebe's work schedule is erratic, and this job is only way she can make ends meet. Mrs. McCullough is annoyed that she's inconvenienced, not trying to understand what it must be like for Bebe.

This is a fascinating, complex, but briskly written novel. It's hard to put down, frankly. Ng effortlessly plugs you directly into her story and her characters. I actually liked Little Fires Everywhere better than Ng's terrific debut, Everything I Never Told You. You've probably seen Little Fires Everywhere just about, well, everywhere. Ng was even on Seth Meyers recently! The novel is worth the hype — highly recommended.