Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Submitted by Heather Saunders on


The Cleveland-based novel, Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (Penguin Books) was published on September 12 to great acclaim, from celebrity endorsements to glowing reviews in publications like The New York Times and Library Journal.

The opening chapter begins with the outcome of chaos: a fire set by one of its inhabitants, fifteen-year-old Izzy Richardson. The title highlights the physics-related definition of chaos, which is to say that something seemingly random, like a blaze, can spark in various places and not be random. The rest of the gripping book circles back to how the events came to pass over the previous eleven months. Only by getting to know the characters and their flaws can the reader appreciate what the particular house fire constitutes in this neighborhood of utopian Shaker Heights in the late 1990s: the loss of a daughter (namely the culprit, who has skipped town) and the loss of dignity (as the matriarch, Mrs. Richardson, clutches her bathrobe in public while watching her material possessions smolder). Tangentially, there’s also the loss of tenants (a mother and teen daughter, who had actually been evicted the day before), and the loss of young love (between the daughter and her neighbor). The shifting of narrators allows the reader to become acquainted quickly with a cross-section of this community.

Elena Richardson, who is usually referred to as Mrs. Richardson, is a dutiful wife to her defense attorney husband. She convinces herself that she enjoys her carefully plotted out life as a reporter and mother of four, so she is threatened by free-spirited Mia Warren. Altruistically, Mrs. Richardson rents half of a duplex she inherited to Mia, a single parent who is an artist, and her daughter, Pearl, a bright fifteen-year-old who is—naturally, based on age—still coming into her own. Pearl befriends three of Mrs. Richardson’s teenage children, Moody, Trip (her secret boyfriend), and Lexie; Izzy Richardson becomes Mia’s studio assistant; and Mia accepts a part-time cooking and cleaning gig at the Richardson’s home. It’s a multi-layered dynamic ripe for dysfunction.

Steven Haruch of The Nashville Scene compares Shaker Heights, with its “drive for perfection,”  to Stepford, but the connection could be explored further: as in Ira Levin’s 1972 novel, The Stepford Wives, newcomer Mia Warren is a photographer. Both as a precocious child and as an adult, in spite of a year of art school in between, Mia works intuitively and embraces disorder. Doing things like shooting at unusual angles and introducing atypical chemical agents like bleach to the printing process, makes her something of a foil to Mrs. Richardson, who is a reflection of her community. Just as Mrs. Richardson monitors everything from her alcohol consumption to the frequency of her aerobic exercise, Shaker Heights even regulates trick-or-treating. When Mrs. Richardson meets Mia, she isn’t interested in the specifics of Mia’s work. She likes the idea of her as an artist, and when her husband asks what kind of artist she is, Mrs. Richardson says jokingly (and one could argue dismissively), “A struggling one.” In actuality, Mia is an accomplished artist whose work is represented in the collection of the MoMA. She wants for nothing, which is unfathomable to the Richardson family. 

In Little Fires Everywhere, photography both creates and heals wounds thanks to its long association with truth-telling, although that historical aspect isn’t plumbed. During a class trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art*, Pearl discovers a hauntingly beautiful photographic portrait of her mother holding a newborn baby. It was taken by Pauline Hawthorne, who was “Cindy Sherman before Cindy Sherman was Cindy Sherman.” Pearl confronts her mother about it, but Mia bristles, and for the first time ever, fails to kiss her daughter goodnight. Izzy, in turn, implores Mrs. Richardson to investigate the origins of the photograph since she is a reporter. A lead surfaces, but initially, she doesn’t pursue it aggressively.

Mrs. Richardson’s pursuit of an exposé doesn’t gain momentum until a long-time friend of hers is slighted by Mia’s meddling. Bebe Chow, Mia’s co-worker at the Lucky Palace, confides in Mia that she left her baby at a fire station when she was destitute. Mia realizes that the Richardsons’ friends, the McCulloughs, are the adoptive parents. She alerts Bebe, who finds pro bono legal representation. Mr. Richardson, meanwhile, represents the McCulloughs. The custody battle becomes a divisive issue that exposes racial tension in the community and questions the definition of parenting.

In lockstep with this subplot developing, Mia’s background comes into focus. To make money to fund her second year of art school in New York, she becomes pregnant with Pearl as part of a surrogacy arrangement. Jostled by her brother’s unexpected death and the loss of familial ties, she leaves the couple a note claiming that she lost the baby and she and Pearl depart for San Francisco. It’s the first of over 40 locations they live in while Pearl works on new art projects and makes ends meet with odd jobs. She returns to New York to visit a dying professor, Pauline Hawthorne. It is not revealed whether Mia confided in Pauline that she was a virgin when she became a surrogate, making Pauline’s choice of title, Virgin and Child #1, coincidental or divulgent, but let’s hope it’s the former. At the end of the book, Mia, although usually resolute, softens and realizes that Pearl has a right to meet her biological father.

Writing about art without the inclusion of images, something critic Clement Greenberg insisted on, is ever challenging. Impressively, Ng intrigues the reader through text alone, with rich passages conjuring up a likeness to the image residing in her mind. For example, she writes vividly of the set of prints that Mia leaves behind for each member of the Richardson family, each so well suited to the individual that identifying the recipients is unnecessary. Izzy—before taking Mia’s advice literally to start from scratch, like after a prairie fire—had scooped up her photograph, leaving behind only the negative as a trace of her presence. Mia had used Izzy’s Doc Martens as a starting point: “a black rose dropped on a cracked square of pavement, the petals cut from black boot leather—her beloved boots, which had made her feel fierce, which her mother had thrown away—the outside petals from the scuffed toes, the inner, darkest petals from the tongue. A bootlace, tip fraying, stretched out long for a stem. Yellow snippets of stitching, unpicked from around the sole, to form the delicate threads of its heart. Toughness rendered tender, even beautiful."

Ng is the recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award, among others. Her book tour will bring her back to her native Shaker Heights on November 6, at the Shaker Public Library, from 7 to 8 pm.

*Although not identified beyond “the art museum,” Ng’s references to a Caravaggio painting and the armor court with textiles are clear indicators that the scene is set at the CMA.