Celeste Ng is a brilliant writer. Two years ago, I read and reviewed her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. I loved it not only because of its riveting narrative suspense, but also because of the manner in which Ng was able to create a warm, nostalgic feeling that pervaded the whole story.
And here in Little Fires Everywhere, her sophomore effort, she’s done it again. It’s perhaps even better than her first book, which statement I do not mean in any way to denigrate Everything I Never Told You.
In Little Fires Everywhere, Ng builds a powerful narrative that rockets toward its dramatic conclusion, which, as we readers are told in the novel’s very opening pages, is a scene in which various members of the Richardsom family are watching from the street as firefighters douse their now-burned-down home, and in which the elder siblings are speculating that their younger sister, Izzy, had something to do with the fire.
Ng pulls this somewhat common (though not trite) move here, where we readers are given a sneak peek at the story’s ending right at its beginning. It’s a move she also made in her debut. It’s a maneuver, from my perspective, that only the most confident and competent writers can pull off, sacrificing right off the bat some degree of suspense that might grip the readers—just throwing it away, boldly acknowledging its cheapness—and thereby demonstrating to the discerning reader from the get-go that there will be ample, deeper reward in the upcoming narrative itself. It was a trade-off I was willing to make, and it certainly paid off.
It’s a story of two families. One is well-heeled, with privileged but complicated children and all the accoutrement of a healthy upper-middle-class American life, a big home, a second property that they rent out, cars for the teenaged kids, et cetera, whose matriarch, Elena Richardson, in many ways reflects the pristine, planned nature of the town in which they live. The other is Mia and her daughter, Pearl, who appeared in town about a year earlier and began renting the Richardsons’ second property. The dichotomy between these two families is quite stark and creates a wonderful tension. Elena and her husband, Bill, have plans for their kids, and despite the normal cacophany of adolescence, the kids for the most part seem alright and on track, while Mia and Pearl, we come to learn, never live anywhere for very long, and often pack up and leave on a whim. Here in Shaker Heights, though, one of the Richardson kids, Moody, develops a crush on Pearl, and she’s spending more and more of her time after school hanging out at the Richardson home, and she herself develops a crush on Moody’s older brother, Trip, and it’s all so perfectly cute and awkward. But there’s a strain of darkness piercing through this warm, 1990s, adolescent milieu, and it’s injected into the story by Ng through the character of Mrs. Richardson, who becomes the kind of villain of the story, as her curiosity—which we readers certainly initially share—about Mia’s backstory, about how she came to be a single mother, living here in her second home so suddenly—becomes more and more tinged with suspicion and distrust, until it becomes something more akin to a kind of prejudice, and builds ultimately toward that final tragic scene that we glimpsed at the novel’s opening. What you don’t know at that point, and what I won’t tell you now, is just how it gets there, for that’s part—but only part—of the joy of reading this great book.
Another aspect of this novel that bears mentioning here is that it’s set in Shaker Heights, an eminently well-organized and well-groomed suburb of Clevelend. And perhaps more important than its geographical setting is its chronological setting. It’s firmly set in the 1990s, and again (just as she did in the EINTY) Ng has hit all the right notes, for me, in terms of triggering in my mind—as a person who grew up in the 90s—ample nostalgia blossoms. Something about the life of this family, the four siblings and the way they interact and spend time with one another in a time before smartphones, the low-level but seemingly intense drama they get caught up in at school, the afternoons in front of the non-digital, non-HD television. It’s all so familiar yet sepia-toned in my mind.
Now, I’m going to say the least about this piece, though it probably deserves the lion’s share of any reviewer’s focus: in the background of all the plot and nostalgia fodder I’ve mentioned already, there’s something profoundly feminist about the book, insofar as it approaches and examines motherhood from a number of different angles all at the same time. And tangled up in this multifaceted narrative exploration of motherhood are also sub-elements involving race and class. Granted, I’m not a mother, nor am I capable of motherhood—being a man—but I found this novel to be marvelously well-done. The manner in which Ng was able to layer these different narrative arcs all ultimately united around their relation to motherhood was powerful, smartly done, and riveting stuff. Her development of these female characters all struggling with being or becoming mothers seemed to me—for what it’s worth—to be both prescient and poignant.
All in all, Ng has, after only two novels, established herself, at least from my perspective, as one of our most significant contemporary novelists. I can’t wait to see what brilliance she’ll get up to with her third, fourth, and subsequent novels.