One of the surest signs that a book has been a good read is when you reach the end and are disappointed that it is over — you wish there was more of it. That is how I left after finishing Little Fires Everywhere. It’s not a traditional page-turner – not a mystery or a thriller that you can’t put down because of the suspense. Rather, the book is a family drama, and not even a highly melodramatic one at that. It is not written in scintillating prose that sweeps you off your feet but in “normal” language for regular people. It is, simply put, a very good story.
The story opens with a fire, or rather, “little fires everywhere” as described by the firemen who come to put the fire out. The fires are in a house in a wealthy suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights (which happens to be a real place) and have actually been set by someone living in the house – the youngest daughter, Izzy, of the Richardson family, who absconds after setting the fires. What inspires her to set the fires is a comment made by a woman, Mia, an artist whom she greatly admires and has become very close to. Mia had said: “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.” Although Mia had said this in the context of a tragedy someone else was going through, the rebellious, tempestuous, adolescent Izzy found this idea so powerful, so deep, and so intense, that she took it literally and was so upset with her family — especially her mother, Elena, with whom she has never got along — that she methodically lit a fire in each room of her house before she left.
What makes Izzy actually set the fires is the crux of the story, along with the mystery of Mia’s background, who has come into the neighborhood with her daughter, Pearl, and is renting an apartment that belongs to Elena. No one, including Pearl herself, knows who her father is. Just as Izzy of the Richardson family is drawn to Mia and persuades Mia to take her on as an (unpaid) assistant, in the same way, Pearl is drawn to the Richardson family and constantly hangs out in Elena’s house with her son, Moody, and her two older children. (All the kids go to the same high school, but are in different grades, except for Pearl and Moody.)
In addition to this “switch” where Izzy hangs out with Mia and Pearl hangs out with the Richardsons, there is a lot of additional intrigue in the story including a surrogacy, an abortion, and a custody battle for a Chinese American baby between the baby’s mother (a coworker of Mia) — who initially abandoned her because of her circumstances but now wants her back — and the wealthy white couple (close friends of the Richardsons) — who took in the baby when she was abandoned, loved and nurtured her, and desperately want to adopt her as they have not been able to have children of their own. Above all, there is also the uneasy feeling Elena has about Mia, who makes her feel unsettled just by being who she is. She takes it upon herself to investigate Mia’s background and find out more about her and the mystery behind her fatherless daughter.
I really enjoyed reading this book and am happy to find that it has also achieved critical acclaim, especially after many unsuccessful attempts at reading award-winning books (recent examples being The Underground Railroad which won the Pulitzer Prize and Lincoln in the Bardo which won the Booker Prize). It’s good to know that even books devoid of literary calisthenics can be appreciated by literary critics in addition to being enjoyed by regular folks like me.
Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: September 2017
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.