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.