Celeste Ng is fantastic at nuanced family drama and in Little Fires Everywhere, she gives us a rather intimate glimpse into the lives of two very different families over the course of a summer. First is Elena Richardson and her children, the youngest of whom, Isabelle, burns down the family home in the very first line of the novel. Elena has a second house that she rents out to Mia Warren, an artist and single mother who moves in with her teenage daughter Pearl.
In the Richardsons, Pearl finds the stable, traditional family life she’s always longed for, and in Mia Warren, Isabelle finds the free-thinking open-minded mother figure she’s always wanted. A misunderstanding involving Pearl and the Richardson children leads to a rift between the families, and a custody battle over an adopted Chinese-American baby puts Elena and Mia on opposing sides.
Little Fires Everywhere is such a complex, emotional book that questions what we consider to be family. The custody battle was the crux on which many issues about biology versus stability, and the many different ways we can love, were openly explored, but the same themes were echoed in the Warrens and Richardsons’ stories, as well as in Mia’s past. Ng manages to weave her various storylines together, and while I wasn’t completely satisfied by the ending (I wished for happier closures for some of the storyline), I was satisfied by the story overall. Ng’s characters were well fleshed out, and whatever we felt for their actions, they felt real.
The custody battle is a good example of this complexity. I felt the narrative wanted us to side with the birth mother, particularly as her lawyer waxed eloquent about the adoption essentially divorcing the child from her Chinese heritage. But while I felt for the birth mother and acknowledge her genuine regret at leaving her baby behind at a fire station, I felt even more strongly for the adoptive mother, who clearly also loved the baby and was being raked over the coals in the courtroom for not reading enough good Chinese stories. I think part of me felt the birth mother’s ‘mistake’ (leaving her baby behind because she couldn’t afford milk and diapers) was far more serious than Mia and the lawyer made out, and I’m not fully satisfied with how this storyline turns out, but I like the emotional complexity with which Ng presented this storyline, and how she made it resonate with the Warrens and Richardsons’ stories as well.
Far from its explosive opening sentence, Little Fires Everywhere is a slow burn of a novel, teasing apart layers of its characters’ lives and weaving them together. If you liked the simmering tension and sensitivity of Ng’s earlier book Everything I Never Told You, you should definitely check out Little Fires Everywhere.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.