A Novel Concept

Burning Down the House with ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ a Terrific Read

Review An assessment or critique of a service, product, or creative endeavor such as art, literature or a performance.

We are part of The Trust Project
Michael MaloneBy Michael Malone

“Little Fires Everywhere” sees author Celeste Ng paint deep and definitive portraits of over a half-dozen characters. Those include the four Richardson kids, their mother and an intriguing mother-daughter duo that turns up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and indeed, shakes things up.

Shaker Heights gets a rich portrayal too. A Cleveland suburb, it is progressive and racially mixed, but Ng notes that the well-intentioned residents of Shaker, at least in her novel, are not always all that open to those who look and think differently from them.

Ng knows about Shaker Heights, as she grew up there.

Set in the late ‘90s, the book is about Mia and Pearl Warren, an artist mom and a teen daughter, arriving in Shaker and renting a house from the Richardson mother, Elena. Used to the transient lifestyle with her mother, Pearl likes her new home, and hopes they’ll stay there as she advances through high school. She has made friends, including all the Richardson kids.

Pearl becomes a mainstay at the Richardsons’ big, beautiful, short-lived home, hanging out with classmate Moody, who has a crush on her, attracting some flirting from his big brother Trip, who she has a crush on and befriending the Richardson girls, Lexie and Izzy. Izzy is the youngest, and clashes with her mother, her sister and her teachers; pretty much everyone, except for Pearl and Mia.

“Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down,” the novel begins. “All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough – or, depending on which side you were on, May Ling Chow – and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss.”

Indeed, Izzy burns down the house, and disappears.

Who is Mirabelle McCullough/May Ling Chow, you ask? A couple that’s tight with the Richardson parents – another well-to-do white family – attempts to adopt a Chinese-American baby after the newborn is left by her mother at a firehouse. (Fires, firefighters and firehouses play key parts in the novel.) A custody battle erupts that attracts loads of media attention is the talk of everyone in Shaker, and puts Mia, who works with the baby’s troubled mother, and Elena on opposing sides of a very hot issue.

After the book begins with the house burning down, the story of the Richardsons and Warrens then unfolds. Early in the novel, Moody decides to bike over to his mom’s rental house, and meet the new tenants. Pearl shares how psyched she is to have her own room, a concept Moody has always taken for granted. He’s immediately drawn to Pearl.

“Watching her, Moody could not see all that she was remembering: the finicky stove in Urbana, which they’d had to light with a match; the fifth-floor walk-up in Middlebury and the weed-choked garden in Ocala and the smoky apartment in Muncie, where the previous tenant had let his pet rabbit roam the living room, leaving gnawed-in holes and several questionable stains.”

“Little Fires Everywhere” was released in 2017. Ng also wrote “Everything I Never Told You,” a story of a Chinese-American family in small-town Ohio, dealing with the mysterious death of their teen daughter, and “Our Missing Hearts.”

“Little Fires Everywhere” is a terrific novel. The book has been rated over a million times on GoodReads, averaging a 4.08 out of 5.

A New York Times review said, “It’s this vast and complex network of moral affiliations – and the nuanced omniscient voice that Ng employs to navigate it – that make this novel even more ambitious and accomplished than her debut. If occasionally the story strains beneath this undertaking – if we hear the squeaky creak of a plot twist or if a character is too conveniently introduced – we hardly mind, for our trusty narrator is as powerful and persuasive and delightfully clever as the narrator in a Victorian novel.”

The Boston Globe, for its part, called the book “delectable and engrossing.”

Its many fans include Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, who produced a ‘Little Fires’ limited series for Hulu, and starred in it – Witherspoon as Elena and Washington as Mia.

Hulu’s description states “The story explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, the ferocious pull of motherhood and the danger in believing that following the rules can avert disaster.”

There are eight episodes total. Washington told The Times, “Celeste has written a collection of modern women (and men) whose characters embody so many of the struggles and complexities of this time we are living in.”

She has indeed. Read all about them in “Little Fires Everywhere.”

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children.

We'd love for you to support our work by joining as a free, partial access subscriber, or by registering as a full access member. Members get full access to all of our content, and receive a variety of bonus perks like free show tickets. Learn more here.