Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

34273236Fiction – print. Penguin Press, 2017. 338 pgs. Purchased.

In the master plan community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, conformity is key. Mia Warren – an artist and single mother – arrives with her teenage daughter, Pearl, on the promise that she will stay in one place until Pearl graduates. In order to enroll her daughter in Shaker Heights’ award-winning school district, Mia rents the top floor of a duplex from Elena Richardson and takes a part-time job at a local Chinese restaurant.

Elena grew up in Shaker Heights and gladly lives her life in the structures of its rules. Her only deviations are (a) her job as a reporter for the community paper and (b) her youngest daughter, Izzy, who wears all black and is generally described by Elena’s other three children as odd. Over time, the lives of Elena’s four children and that of Mia’s daughter overlaps as Pearl befriends Elena’s youngest son, Moody.

Elena is fine with the friendships between the five children; she genuinely believes she and her children can offer Pearl stability and life experiences that Mia cannot. And her self-described bleeding heart leads her to offer Mia a job cleaning the Richardsons’ home so Pearl can have been more stability in her life.

But she becomes suspicious of Mia when she learns Mia served as a conduit of information to bereaved birth mother of the Chinese-American baby that Elena’s friends are attempting to adopt. Determined to uncover Mia’s motives – and explain why Mia and Pearl are featured in a photograph by a famous photographer at the Cleveland Art Museum – Elena launches an investigative campaign that threatens to unravel the lives Mia and Elena have built for their children.

I went into this novel with diminished expectations. I toted my hardback copy to Philadelphia with plans to read it on my return flight, and its presence caught the attention of my Taiwanese-American friend whose apartment I was staying in. After inquiring if I had read it, she avoided spoilers and merely said that while she appreciated the exploration of what it means to be Chinese-American, she felt it didn’t live up to Ng’s 2014 novel, Everything I Never Told You.

I loved that particular book, and I remember eagerly searching out time to read the novel. With Little Fires Everywhere, I was fortunate to have nearly six hours to devote to reading the novel thanks to a delayed flight, and I certainly felt a pull to keep reading by the unfolding events.

Yet, I would have to agree with my friend. Cross-racial adoption and the importance of white parents encouraging identity exploration has always been an intriguing topic to me. But I was disappointed with the in-your-face-way that Ng chose to explore this topic.

As I recall, her previous novel contained a more nuanced exploration of what it means to be Chinese-American. This one rested more on purchasing non-white dolls, learning the language, and tone-deaf answers by white parents who think visiting a Chinese restaurant is enough exposure for their adopted child. This debate looms large over the events of the novel, but it is a debate that forces people to play roles based on their race or their connection to the case.

Which only serves to stress how much Ng’s characters are stilted, cardboard cutouts. Elena gave up a promising career for motherhood and now resents women who bucked the trends that she decided to follow. Pearl is caught in the tumult of her mother’s choices, but she still manages to be the perfect student and daughter. Trip is the star athlete who falls for the geeky girl while Elena’s oldest daughter is a seemingly vapid airhead who tries to hide from the ramifications of her difficult choice by using Pearl’s name.

It’s the characters that sunk the novel for me. I enjoyed reading it; the pacing was strong, and the story starts with an intriguing reaction by Izzy to then an unknown event that kept me happily distracted from multiple flight delays. But it was a disappointing follow-up with Ng’s first novel, and I felt I couldn’t to give it anything higher than a 3 on GoodReads.


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