Little Fires Everywhere Hides Provocative Questions Behind A Simplistic Story

Hello, everyone! In the spirit of college procrastination, I read all of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere in two days and I’m now bursting with commentary. LFE is a specious narrative, superficially simple with thought-provoking themes beneath. Quiet, poignant, and depressing, Ng’s novel is a subtle dig at the utopian dreams of white suburbia, a coming-of-age story, and a treatise on the dilemmas of motherhood. It’s a story that we’ve all read before, in some form or another, but Celeste Ng wraps up the tried-and-true in a fresh perspective that makes the re-treading all the more enjoyable.

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Synopsis: Set in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Little Fires Everywhere begins with an exodus and an arson. A few months earlier, artistic Mia and her quiet daughter Pearl move into the Richardson’s family rental to begin a new life in Shaker Heights. The two families quickly integrate as Moody Richardson latches onto Pearl and brings her into the family and Mrs. Richardson hires Mia as a housekeeper. But the idyllic town is soon roiled by a dramatic custody battle, leaving Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. As both women fight to defend their values, their families are caught in the ethical crossfire, leading to dramatic consequences.

My take: At first, I wasn’t drawn in by LFE. I felt like I’d read it all before: the perfect rich family, the nomadic artistic mother and her daughter who longs to fit in. The Richardson children aren’t terribly unique: Lexie is pretty and confident, Trip is handsome and sporty, Moody is sensitive and artistic (as his name implies), and even Izzy, the black sheep of the family, is your typical Doc Martens wearing rebellious artist who will calm down and come out of the closet as soon as she flies the coop. Even Mia and Pearl, who are supposed to be the outsiders in Shaker, are pretty trite in their idiosyncracies. But even having seen these characters and this family dynamic before, I was hooked by the central plot of the story: the custody battle over an abandoned Chinese child.

In short, a Chinese immigrant called Bebe abandons her child in a fit of insanity, and the child is quickly given to the McCulloughs, a respected white family who have been trying to conceive for over a decade. When Mia, Bebe’s coworker, learns of this, she helps Bebe fight to regain custody, which launches a sensational custody case in court. This angers Mrs. Richardson, who as Mrs. McCullough’s longtime friend believes that she deserves the baby and that Bebe is an unfit mother. Thus the clash between Mia and Mrs. Richardson begins and everyone suffers.

Ng’s strength is her ability to capture the subtle racism and classism behind this custody battle. While Mrs. Richardson and Mia seem to be battling over an idea of motherhood, they’re really battling over who “deserves” to have a child, and whether a rich white family is ultimately better for a child than its own impoverished mother. Mrs. Richardson embodies the regimented WASPy values of Shaker Heights, while Mia is a free-thinker with her own ambiguous view on motherhood. As an Asian-American author, Ng’s perspective against white families adopting Asian children peeks through in the rigid white savior idealism of Mrs. Richardson, but the novel would have benefitted from a firmer hand. She shies away from really digging into the ugliness behind the case, preferring to center her story around the family drama between the Warrens and Richardsons rather than the baby battle.

One major flaw in LFE is that dramatic undertakings seem to have anti-climactic consequences. House burn and battles rage, but in the end, the romance and petty teen drama takes center stage. My problem is that I’ve read all of this teen drama before, but I hadn’t read a story about the ethical dilemma behind post-adoption custody battles. While I think that Ng is a deft plotter, I don’t think she is as deft with her framing. Told from the perspective of Bebe, or even Mrs. McCullough, Little Fires Everywhere could have been groundbreaking. But by pushing their story to the background in favor of a classic story of two warring families, Little Fires Everywhere became just another story about the perils of suburbia.

As for the stylistic merits of LFE, there’s nothing to get excited about. Ng is a capable writer, certainly descriptive, but I wouldn’t be able to recognize her prose out of context. This is only her second novel, however, so I look forward to seeing how she develops her individual voice in future works.

Little Fires Everywhere is a riveting story, but it’s not re-inventing the wheel. Still, I would recommend it for those in search of a quick read. Just don’t expect to be blown away by incisive commentary. LFE is at times thought-provoking, but it obscures its profundity behind a safer story, and it’s sad to imagine what this story could have become if Ng had written with a little more courage.

 

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