A THRILLER WHERE REALITY ITSELF IS AT STAKE: RECURSION

What if you couldn’t count on your own memory?  What if the things you thought you remembered weren’t actually things that happened to you, or to anyone?  What if other people were also “remembering” things that didn’t happen? What if there were some kind of disease that spread this kind of false memory among people, and what if the disease were contagious?

This is part of the premise for a new, and very different, thriller, Recursion, by Blake Crouch, and what a premise it is!  The two main characters are a police officer and a neurologist, who are working together to save the world, not from an evil corporation or a would-be dictator, but from the unmaking of reality that results from the spread of false memories.

New York Police Officer Barry Sutton is investigating a suicide, which should be straightforward, except for the reason the woman committed suicide: she claimed that her son’s entire existence had been erased.  As Sutton begins to dig into the person’s past, he starts finding evidence of a truly terrifying disease that seems to be planting false memories in people’s minds, driving them insane or worse.

Neuroscientist Helena Smith is acting with only the best motives.  She wants to find a way people can preserve and relive their most precious memories, and she’s been working on technology that will do that.  What could possibly go wrong? If you’ve read any speculative fiction at all, you can imagine the answers to that question.

It begins to seem that memory creates reality in a deep and profound way.  Sutton and Smith find themselves fighting against a force that actually unmakes the past itself, changing everything about the world as we know it, and making it much harder for them to find a way to stop its effects, let alone restore the past and the present.

If you’re interested in a thriller that incorporates speculative fiction and deep philosophical ideas about the nature of reality itself but that’s also a page-turner, you owe it to yourself to check out Recursion.

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JULY 2019 FIELD NOTES CHOICE: EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

After a vigorous discussion of American history and the gaps between American ideals and American realities, with impressive insights from those members of the group who didn’t grow up in America, the Field Notes Book Group chose its book for July: Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

You might think that a book which starts out telling you one of the main characters is dead would be either morbid or lacking in suspense or both, but in the case of this book, you’d be wrong.  Knowing before the characters do that Lydia is dead creates a Hitchcockian sense of suspense from the outset as we watch her sister and brother and her parents go through their ordinary daily lives, innocent of the event that’s going to shake up their world.

What Ng does best, in my opinion, is character.  This isn’t a book that turns on surprise twists of plot (though when you find out what actually happened to Lydia and how she died, very late in the book, you may be surprised), but on increasingly deeper understanding of the characters and why they do the things they do. The heartbreaking part of the book isn’t so much Lydia’s death (that’s sad but you know it’s happening from the outset) as the way Lydia’s parents never seemed to see her for who she was when she was alive.

As always, we can promise you coffee and donuts (possibly even more snacks) and scintillating discussion, so come and join us at The Field Library to pick up the books, and then join us on July 20 at 11:00 for our next meeting.

ALMOST TOO LATE: HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE

When I first saw the description of the book, How Not to Die Alone, by Richard Roper, I have to admit I had ambivalent feelings. The bare bones of the plot are that our protagonist, Andrew, works for a branch of the English government, taking care of the burials and funerals of people who have died without heirs or friends or family, and while everyone at his workplace believes he goes home to a wife and family, the truth is that he’s living by himself in a miserable flat, but all this changes when he meets Peggy, a woman who starts working with him and who sets him on the path to a new life.

What I hoped this book would be: a warm, touching book, kind of like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which a lonely person steps out of his self-imposed isolation and begins to find a place in the world.

What I feared this book would be: a manic pixie dream girl comes and, through her loving but deeply unconventional ways, helps some obnoxious guy who’s never put any effort into being a good person live life to the fullest.

Having read the book, I’m happy to report that it was much closer to my hopes than my fears. Andrew comes across, at the beginning of the book, as something of a loser, someone who’s boxed himself into a narrow life because he doesn’t want anything more, but we see early on that he has a good heart.  He attends the funerals of the unfortunate souls who’ve died alone and without any friends or family, and he approaches the difficult part of his job, entering the homes of those people to look for any signs that there might be money for a funeral or any other human beings who might want to know this person has died, and who might mourn the person’s death, with grace and kindness. Frankly, it’s not a job I think I could do, and that Andrew (and the rest of the people in his department) manages to do it at all, and stay sane in the process, is pretty impressive to me.

Peggy, the woman who changes his life, might seem at first like a candidate for manic pixie dream girl: she’s lively, she curses, she approaches Andrew and the job with warmth and enthusiasm, she drinks and she’s not shy about telling people where to go. However, she’s got a complicated life of her own, including a husband who’s got a drinking problem, and two daughters who mean the world to her.  She cares about Andrew, and he comes to care about her, but she’s not here to fix his world. And in fact, at a critical point in the story, she tells him he can’t expect someone else to save him; he has to do it for himself.

Andrew didn’t originally create a wife and children, and a household, out of thin air for the fun of it (Andrew does very few things for the fun of it).  He was in an interview, and he made up a story on the spot, never dreaming he was going to have to live with that story for the rest of his time on the job, inventing increasingly elaborate stories about how he met his wife, what his children are like, and why nobody in the office has ever met them. He knows throughout that this isn’t sustainable; sooner or later people are going to find out the truth, but the longer he manages to keep the story going, the harder it’s going to be, in the end, to admit to reality. And when his supervisor, as a team building effort, institutes a program where people give dinner parties in their homes, Andrew knows his days are numbered.

His brother-in-law is blackmailing him about an inheritance, there are rumors of upcoming layoffs in the department, Peggy’s having difficulties with her marriage, and floating in the background are questions about how Andrew got to be this person in the first place and why he reacts so painfully to the sound of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald singing “Blue Moon,” which is explained late in the book (and when you find out and realize what his brother-in-law is referring to throughout his nasty attacks on Andrew, it’s a painful, poignant moment).  Even in the job itself, which could seem really depressing, there are moments of joy, including Andrew and Peggy tracking down a former lover of one of the deceaseds, and one funeral at least that feels like a real celebration of a life and not merely a routine between the vicar and Andrew as the sole mourner.

In the end, How Not to Die Alone is a warm, goodhearted book, a reminder that it’s almost never too late to start living.

FINISH THE STORY!

Perhaps this has happened to you.  You’re reading a book, you’re interested in the characters, the plot is carrying you along, and you’re really looking forward to seeing how it’s all going to work out, especially as complications ensue and twists occur and you’re looking at the amount of the book left to read and it’s getting shorter and shorter.  You reach the end, and only then discover that no, the author isn’t going to resolve the plot in this book because there’s a sequel! There was nothing in the publicity or the reviews for the book, and nothing in the book itself that indicated this wasn’t a stand-alone book, so you feel doubly gypped.

That’s happened to me a few times, most recently with Once and Future, by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, and when it happens, whatever good feelings I had about the book drop dramatically when I discover that the author(s) pulled that kind of trick on me. My feeling is that readers and authors enter into a sort of implied agreement : the author is going to play fair, not pulling solutions to plots out of thin air, not violating the rules the author has set up for this particular universe, and finishing the story by the end of the book.  If the author is not going to finish the plot in one book, I feel it’s only fair to let the reader know in advance, by indicating somewhere that this is the first book in a series. Leaving the reader to find that out in the last pages of the book feels like a violation of that author-reader agreement.

It’s not that I don’t like books in series, or that I don’t understand that sometimes a story is too long and too complicated to be told in one book. I’m perfectly happy to read a book that’s part of a series, as long as I know it’s part of a series when I start, so I can decide if I want to read the first part now and wait years for the next part or not.

It’s possible, too, for a book to be part of a series and yet tell a complete story in itself. For instance, there is a several book arc in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series in which a wrong done in the first book finally gets righted, but in each one of these books, the main plot line is resolved, even if those other issues are left for a later book to resolve.  In the same way, Felix Palma’s Map books (The Map of Time, The Map of the Sky,  The Map of Chaos) are obviously all connected, and it’s much more fun to read the later ones if you’ve read the earlier ones, but each book resolves (and in each case the resolution is both surprising and perfectly reasonable, given things that happened earlier in the book), and none of them leaves you hanging and waiting for a sequel to find out what happened to the characters. The more I think about series I have enjoyed in the past (including Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, The Magician King, The Magician’s Land,  and Hilary Mantel’s still unfinished series about Oliver Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), the clearer it is that I have no problem with a series as long as each book in the series is self-contained.

Nor do I have a problem with a series where the story is continued over a couple of volumes (I grew up on The Lord of the Rings, after all), when I know from the outset that book one is not going to answer all the questions it raises.  It’s about expectations, really. My expectations may be unreasonable (I don’t think they are, but then, who thinks they’re being unreasonable?), but if you want to make me happy as a reader, play fair and tell me at the outset whether you’re going to tell the whole story in one book or keep me on tenterhooks till you get the next book published.

 

REAL LIFE HORROR STORY: MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL

Imagine a Venn diagram where one circle is “This nonfiction book is written like a thriller, so full of exciting detail that even though I know what’s going to happen, I still can’t put it down” and the other circle is “This nonfiction book is so terrifying, the things it depicts are so nightmarish that I have to force myself to pick it up and read it, no matter how well-written it is.”  The very small intersection between those two circles would be where Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, would fit. It is a terrific read, a real page turner.  At the same time, it is one of the most frightening books I have ever read, especially since it’s all true and accurately reported.

This is one of those books, like Columbine, where you think you know what happened, but as you dive with the author down into the details of what actually happened and why, you discover that what you think you knew bears little resemblance to reality.  This can be a mind-blowing experience even if the events you’re learning more about aren’t horrific; it’s still mind-blowing but much more disturbing if the events are dark and bloody.

You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist or a historian of the former Soviet Union to follow what’s going on in this book; I’m neither, and Higginbotham is so clear, so detailed and so human, in his telling that I could understand (as much as anyone can) what was happening throughout.  He explains the science and gives background to everything you need to know while still keeping the narrative racing forward.

The book doesn’t read like a science or history text.  The closest thing I can compare it to is a horror novel, especially in the beginning, as we meet the people who will play roles in the disaster, from the director of the Chernobyl plant who was responsible for designing the plant and the town that went around it to the individual firefighters who tried, in valiant ignorance, to put out the insanely radioactive and dangerous fires in Reactor Number Four.  I appreciate the author’s ability to bring these distinct people to life, but the whole time I was reading the beginning, I kept wondering which of these people was going to die in the course of the book and how horrible the deaths would be. When things start cascading from disaster to mega-disaster, and the officials are dragging their heels, mired in denial and utterly unprepared for anything of this magnitude, refusing to order the evacuation of the town even as plumes of radiation are exploding out of the plant, the urge to scream at the participants, urging them to “Get those people out of there!” (a la Ellen Ripley in Aliens), was almost irresistible.  

There’s so much going on in this book, and while the officials of the Soviet Union chose their scapegoats to punish for the disaster, Higginbotham is much more measured and makes it quite clear there’s plenty of blame to go around, from the design of the reactor itself to the almost unbelievable arrogance of the scientists running the program who didn’t even try to imagine the worst possible accidents, let alone plan for them, to the people who actually took the steps that led to the meltdown and then tried to fix it without knowing what they were doing or whether anything they did would work. Spoiler alert: most of the things the people did in the beginning either didn’t work at all or made things worse.

There are nightmarish descriptions of the plant and its people in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and gruesome descriptions of how people die from acute radiation poisoning, but really the worst things in the book are the official reactions of the government to this unprecedented accident, the way the Soviet Union’s reflexive secrecy and refusal to admit error made everything worse than it might otherwise have been (though, obviously, things would have been pretty bad even if the various governmental entities had been much more open).

It’s hard to recommend a book that’s this terrifying, even though it’s meticulously researched and incredibly well written, but if you have a strong stomach and the willingness to look at one of the worst disasters in modern times, this is definitely a book you should read.

JUNE 2019 BOOK GROUP SELECTION: THE SOUL OF AMERICA

Thanks to everybody who showed up to discuss May’s Field Notes selection, Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen.  We had an interesting and wide ranging discussion about privilege and New York City and marriage and other issues raised by the book.  We also made our selection for June, though it was so evenly divided that in the end we had to decide via a coin flip. The next book is The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham, copies of which will be here at The Field Library for pickup this week.

A New York Times bestselling history book, The Soul of America does what the best of history does: it illuminates the present by looking closely at our shared past. If you’re feeling depressed about how divided America seems to be these days, and despairing of the possibility of the country’s pulling together and making progress, you’re exactly the person Meacham wrote this book for.  A greater understanding of American history will make it clear that we have been in bad places before, in places where the divisions between Americans have seemed intractable and hopeless, and that on those prior occasions we have managed to overcome those divisions, not always easily and never perfectly, but enough to continue as one nation striving for the promise of the American dream.  Meacham doesn’t just talk in generalities, either, but looks at specific people in specific times and places, studying Reconstruction in the 1870’s, anti-immigration panics in the 1920’s, the rise of demagogues like McCarthy and Father Coughlin, the fights for women’s suffrage and for civil rights, and examining how ordinary people behaved in extraordinary ways.

As someone who loves history and has a degree in history, I’m delighted that we’ve chosen this particular book, and I’m looking forward to vigorous discussions on June 15, when the Field Notes Book Group meets again.  As always, there will be donuts and coffee and lots of thought-provoking questions and issues, so be sure to come in and get your copy and then join us in June.

CONTROLLING THE UNIVERSE: MIDDLEGAME

Sometimes the mere description of a book isn’t enough to encourage you to read it.  And sometimes you’re right to avoid a particular book based on its description, but sometimes you’d be missing out.  Case in point: Seanan McGuire’s newest book, Middlegame.  If I weren’t familiar with the author (more about her later, if you didn’t already recognize her name from my other reviews), I’d be looking askance at the concept of the book.  Twin characters named Roger and Dodger? Isn’t that a little cutesy? One of them, Roger, is all about the power of words and is a genius with words, and the other, Dodger, is a brilliant mathematician who can do anything with numbers?  Doesn’t that ring familiarity bells with King Azaz and the Mathemagician of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, respectively, in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth?*  And the tagline, “Godhood is attainable. Pray it isn’t attained” just makes me think of any number of annoying books about would be masters of the universe.  If this book weren’t written by Seanan McGuire, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all.

I’ve already written about McGuire’s brilliant Wayward Children series, including Every Heart a Doorway (winner of a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award), Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and In an Absent Dream. I know from that series (and the Incryptid series which mixes humor with suspense and supernatural beasties) that Seanan McGuire does not write cliches, and does not write cutesy, and so I took a chance on this book despite its description.

Not surprisingly, given the author, the book is much better than you would think.  In fact, it’s a terrific read, one that surprises you at almost every turn, with characters you care about and an outcome that’s far from obvious and yet ends up being very satisfying indeed.

Roger and Dodger are creations of a rogue alchemist, designed to embody the forces of language and mathematics so that ultimately, when they’re brought together (under specially controlled circumstances), they will embody the forces that control the universe (the Doctrine), and if they themselves are being commanded by James Reed, the alchemist in question, he will be able to control the universe.  Classic mad scientist (or in this case, mad alchemist) stuff.

It’s necessary for the purposes of the experiment that the two be raised apart, so Roger is adopted and brought up by parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Dodger is raised in Palo Alto, California.  Almost from the outset, however, the two of them break the rules of the experiment, becoming “quantum entangled” with each other from across the country, being able to see through each other’s eyes and communicate without talking. This starts when they’re very young, and starts again when they’re seven.  Reed uses his creation, Leigh (who’s the most terrifying creature in the book, completely without ethics or morals and delighting in some pretty horrible destruction), to break the two of them apart, but since they’re the most promising pair of “cuckoos” he’s created, he’s not willing to have them destroyed, yet.  

Roger and Dodger are both fully realized characters, similar to each other and yet different. Roger’s the more socialized of the two, as befits his skills with words and language, and Dodger is a little more the eccentric mathematician and chess prodigy who doesn’t deal well with other human beings, but neither one of them is a cliche and the bond between them is strong enough to withstand even the efforts of Leigh and her minions to keep them apart and keep them from realizing their potential too soon. Of course, sooner or later they do find each other, they do work together, and they do set out to embody the Doctrine, as time ticks down and disaster chases after them.

One of the fun aspects of the book is the use of quotations from a famous (in the world of this universe) children’s book (think The Wizard of Oz) which turns out to have been written by the alchemist’s creator and is actually a guidebook, if you understand it, to what Roger and Dodger are ultimately doing.  There are parallels between the fantastic characters in those excerpts and the people (and almost-people) our protagonists encounter themselves.

I don’t want to tell too much of the plot, because there are many surprises along the way (and even though the book appears to begin at the climax, things are not what they seem, so you have to keep reading even if you think you know where things are going).  Suffice it to say that things work out the way they should, the ending is very satisfying (I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that were ruined by an ending that felt tacked on or that felt like a cheat), and it’s a thrilling and fun read.

So don’t choose the book on its description or its tag line.  Choose it based on Seanan McGuire’s great talent for storytelling, and you will not be disappointed, I guarantee it.

 

*Not that I have anything against The Phantom Tollbooth, which is one of the few children’s books I own in hardcover, and which both my daughter and I can quote from prolifically.  Seriously, if you haven’t read it, do. You’re in for a treat. This, however, has nothing to do with the review at hand.

CHEER UP WITH A FUN READ

Sometimes you just need to read something light and charming to help you deal with the woes of the world, or the miserable weather in a month that should be warm and springlike, and if you’re in that kind of mood, come by The Field Library and check out three of our new books, which will put a smile on your face regardless of the outside world.

Start with The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang.  Hoang is the author of the wildly successful book, The Kiss Quotient, and her new book promises to be as good-hearted and charming as that one. Khai Diep, the hero of the book, is on the autism spectrum.  He believes there’s something wrong with him, that he doesn’t have any feelings, but his family recognizes that he does in fact feel things, he just needs to process his emotions in a different way from most people (and here let’s praise his family for being so sensible about his neurological differences).  His mother takes matters into her own hands and goes back to the Old Country, Vietnam, to find him a bride. There she finds our heroine, Esme Tran, a mixed race young woman who doesn’t feel as if she belongs anywhere. Given the opportunity to go to America, even if it means she has to make a complete stranger fall in love with her, Esme’s eager to take her chances.  Things don’t work out quite the way she expected, though: instead of helping Khai to fall in love with her, she’s starting to fall for him. With the clock ticking and Esme’s time in the United States limited, Khai has to discover that there’s more than one way to feel, and that maybe he’s not as damaged as he always believed.

The “enemies turning into friends, or more than friends” trope is an old and solid one in romantic comedy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a lot of fun, and The Unhoneymooners, by Christina Lauren, proves just how entertaining it can be (and hey, these tropes became tropes because they work, right?).  The setup: Olive and Ami are twins, but it seems Ami got all the good luck and Olive got all the bad luck. Olive loses her job, gets involved in inexplicable accidents, and Ami not only gets the nicest guy as her fiancee, but she manages to finance her wedding AND her honeymoon through contest winnings  Olive is used to her bad luck and her sister’s fabulous luck, which even extends to Olive’s pairing with the best man, her enemy, Ethan Thomas (and yes, of course she could choose not to be the maid of honor and then avoid him, but family matters are complicated). But then their relative luck shifts, when everybody at the wedding reception falls ill from food poisoning EXCEPT Olive and Ethan.  The honeymoon is all paid for, and the bride and groom are in no position to take advantage of it, so . . . Olive and Ethan take their places, pretending to be honeymooners to be able to spend a free vacation in Maui. Of course, over the time of the fake honeymoon, Olive begins to enjoy spending time with Ethan, and maybe this un-honeymoon could turn into the beginning of something wonderful.

Or, if world events are making you crazy, try an alternative foreign relations problem in Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston.  In this book, the President of the United States is a woman with a teenage son, Alex, and Alex has a beef with the Crown Prince of England, Harry, to the point where a picture of the two of them mixing it up emerges and almost causes a breach in diplomatic relations.  Cooler heads prevail on both sides, and the handlers of the two young men set up a fake reconciliation between the prince and the First Son. What starts out as fake, however, takes a turn for the real, as Alex gets to know Harry as a person and not just as a figurehead.  The fake friendship becomes a real romance, though a secret one, and the question becomes whether honesty might be the best policy, whether true love really does conquer all, and whether diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the United States can survive a romance between the crown prince of one and the First Son of the other.  And really, isn’t that a much more pleasant foreign relations problem than some of the ones we’re actually dealing with?

So take a break from all the miserable weather and the frustrating world of the daily news, and check out some fun new books from The Field Library.

THE BEST OF THE LAW: MEET HORACE RUMPOLE

The most recent category in The Field Library’s Reading Challenge for 2019 is “Read a Book About Law,” and frankly, that’s probably the easiest category of the lot.  If you want fiction, there’s the usual Grisham and Turow, Grippando and Scottoline, just to name the most obvious and popular choices. If you’re more a nonfiction person, there are books about famous trials, famous Supreme Court cases, about the operation of the District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, criminal and civil law practitioners.  Nobody should have any trouble finding a book he or she wants to read in this category, but I just want to recommend what I consider to be the best series of books about law and lawyers around: the Rumpole books by John Mortimer. We have a couple of them here at The Field Library, including The First Rumpole Omnibus, which contains Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole and Rumpole’s Return, a fabulous introduction to this wonderful character and his world.

Horace Rumpole, if you’ve never encountered him in print or on television (Leo McKern portrayed him, brilliantly, on the old Mystery! Series on PBS), is definitely a character.  A British barrister who’s been around the block many times, senior to most of the other barristers in his chambers (don’t worry, you’ll learn all the British terms for the practice of law by reading Rumpole), forever an ordinary barrister and not Queen’s Counsel (which Rumpole refers to as “Queer Customer”), the kind of barrister who gets the high paying, high prestige cases.  While barristers can choose to prosecute or defend accused criminals (and some do both), Rumpole is resolute: he never prosecutes (his argument is that he doesn’t want to be responsible for putting some poor unfortunate in jail), but only does defense. He loves trying cases, and while (as is almost always the case in criminal defense) he loses a lot of his cases, he has more tricks up his sleeve, a greater ability to draw out the truth in cross examination and a greater ability to size up and persuade a jury than almost all of the other barristers around him.  He drinks too much (his favorite cheap drink is a vintage he refers to as “Chateau Thames Embankment” or “Chateau Fleet Street”; in one of my favorite stories he’s involved with wine connoisseurs, where he’s hilariously out of his league), he smokes cigars incessantly, he eats badly and refuses to follow any trends. He’s sarcastic and well-read, and he is riotously funny.

Rumpole is such a great character I would read his escapades even if he were the only person in the stories, but half the enjoyment of the stories lies in the supporting cast, from his long-suffering wife, Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”, as Rumpole calls her behind her back), to the Timson family which seems to consist of thieves, burglars, fences and general fodder for Rumpole’s work, to the (shifting) population of Rumpole’s chambers, all of whom are individualized and given their own nicknames by Rumpole.  He appears before some judges more than once, so you get to recognize them by their names and their behaviors, but even those we only see once are memorable characters in their own right.

Through the many stories (only Rumpole’s Return is a full length novel), we get to see the English justice system in action, we learn the difference between barristers and solicitors, and we get to know an extraordinary collection of characters on all sides of the law.  Honestly, if you want the best possible introduction to the glories and tribulations of the law, you could hardly do better than starting with Horace Rumpole.

LIGHTING UP MOTHERHOOD: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE

So here we are in the shadow of Mother’s Day, and I’m about to recommend to you a book about mothers and children that starts with a teenage child burning the family home to the ground.  You’ve probably guessed what the book is if you’ve read the bestselling Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, but if you haven’t read it, go and check it out.  It’s the kind of book that could start a lot of interesting conversations (and I hope it will for the people in the Drum Hill Book Group, who are reading it for June) about a number of topics, from what makes a good mother to which secrets are worth keeping and from whom, to the biggest of all: what makes a good life?

Modern writing courses always tell you to start with a bang, with some exciting scene to draw the readers in, and Ng certainly does that, opening with Elena Richardson running out of her house as it’s engulfed in flames.  We’re told from the outset that Izzy, the one offspring we don’t meet in the first chapter, is assumed to be the one responsible for lighting the fires in all the bedrooms that led to the conflagration, though her brother, Moody (yes, the names are all like that), is skeptical from the beginning.  Spoiler: Moody’s wrong, and Izzy did in fact set the house on fire, deliberately (“a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there”, to quote from the book). Why she did it, and what led up to that scene, is the plot of the book, but even that’s just a small part of the universe of Little Fires Everywhere.

The plot begins when Mia Warren, with her teenage daughter, Pearl,  moves into the rental house owned by Elena Richardson in beautiful, carefully planned and regulated Shaker Heights, Ohio.  Mia is an artist and something of a gypsy, staying in any one place only long enough to finish one project and then moving along to the next place.  Now, after a health scare, Mia’s promised Pearl they’ll put down roots here and stay for good, and the two of them begin to entangle themselves with the lives of Elena Richardson and her four children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy.  Moody befriends Pearl, who goes to his school and starts spending more and more time in the classic suburban type home of the family, so different from the nomadic and impermanent living situations she’s had with her beloved mother. Mia, working a couple of jobs to keep herself and Pearl going while she works on the photography she really cares about, finds herself working as a sort of cook and housekeeper for the family.

At first you think Mia is going to be the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who changes the lives of the staid suburban family and causes them all to look at the world differently and see the value of art and so forth, but that’s not what’s going on at all, and kudos to Ng for not falling into that trap. Nor is it a story about the child of a wandering, bohemian parent discovering how much she likes the settled life or the people who live that kind of life. Mia and Pearl are agents of change for the Richardsons and the other people of the city, but they are changed as well by their relationships with the people of Shaker Heights.

Because of Mia’s having one foot in the Richardsons’ world and one in the world of low wage jobs, she realizes that the Chinese baby found at the local fire station and given to the McCulloughs, a childless couple who are friends of the Richardsons, is the baby her coworker left at that fire station, and once she tells Bebe, the mother of the baby, where the child is, Bebe demands her baby back.  Now we have a court case pitting a poor immigrant biological mother against a well-to-do middle class couple who have been taking care of the child for a year, in the process of adopting her.

The family court case divides the town, and Elena Richardson’s loyalty to her friend, Linda, turns her against Mia, with dramatic results.

Throughout the book, there are mothers and would-be mothers: Mia and Elena, Bebe and Linda, and other characters (I’m not going to spoil the plot by giving more details in that regard), raising uncomfortable questions about what makes a person a mother: biology? Care?  Choice? Izzy attaches herself to Mia, seeing her as a better mother than Elena, and Elena and Izzy spend much of the book at odds with each other, and only in the end of the book does Elena actually begin to understand why she’s had so much trouble with Izzy (a revelation that feels earned, not as if the author felt Elena had to learn a lesson and imposed it on her).  

There are no characters who are idealized, no lifestyles that are presented as being better in an absolute sense than others.  Everybody makes mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, and people have to live with the consequences of their actions. It would be easy, in a book like this, to choose sides and paint everything black and white, but this is a book of greys, and at different points everyone in it is lovable and infuriating at the same time.

It’s an excellent book to spark discussions and make you think; it’s also an enthralling read that’s hard to put down. Check out Little Fires Everywhere and settle in for a reading adventure.