In my honest opinion, this book is unlike any other and left me with some mixed feelings. It is the sort of book where you finish reading it, quietly put it to the side and then sit where you are, processing the entire story in order to try and gather how you feel about the whole novel. I had no idea how to feel because I had very mixed opinions about the characters and their choices. But I do know that I have read something powerful. Little Fires Everywhere is a thought-provoking book which explores the significance of social class, race, and motherhood in modern America. This is a spoiler-free review!

Little fires everywhere book cover by Celeste Ng for review

Book Blurb: In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs. 

As I began reading this book, I felt slightly confused by the opening scene. We are introduced to the different characters who are each experiencing different thoughts about a significant event caused by a certain character in the book. It was hard to keep up with all the different characters’ names and their significance due to the simultaneous introduction. Having asked a fellow reader, it seems she also held the same thoughts. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that the opening scene began to make sense, as the ending was a repetition of the beginning. Having said that, the beginning does draw you in and have you wondering what, how, and why. It made me eager to find out the back-story behind this dramatic beginning.

The novel is set in Ng’s childhood town of Shaker Heights. It appears to be a stifling but perfectly-kept town where everything is controlled (including the length of the grass on your lawn) in order to maintain its own pristine image. Everything is done a certain way in these upper-class streets, and it is clear that nothing has disturbed the peace for a very long time…until the arrival of eccentric artist Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl.

Mia Warren likes to do things her own way, in stark contrast to her landlord Elena Richardson who sees herself as a do-gooder, yet seems unable to look at things outside her little world. It is when her Mrs Richardson’s white American friends decide to fight to keep a Chinese-American baby from its mother that we see the rise in animosity between Mia and Elena, with Mia set on helping the baby’s birth mother. This starts Elena’s digging into Mia Warren’s past with her own daughter which has devastating consequences for all parties involved. I felt that the gradual deterioration of their relationship was portrayed very powerfully, particularly with regards to creating atmosphere when it came to the characters trying to hide their own or find out other people’s secrets. And yes…it seems almost everyone in this entire book has secrets. It’s like a very complicated episode of a drama series.

Something that I really liked about the book was Ng’s portrayal of human emotions and the actions which result from them. This is particularly true with the portrayal of maternal love from several major characters. Mia’s love for her daughter is evident when certain actions from her past are revealed. The emotions of Bebe Chow, mother of the baby May Ling, are so devasting that we can’t help but be moved by her story. I was eager to find out who would win the case for the baby and what Mia Warren’s dark secret was. On the other hand, I found that I disliked practically all of the characters in the book, with the exception of Bebe Chow. I wanted to like Mia and Pearl but found their characters to be somewhat irksome, particularly with regards to their secrets. This made it difficult to connect with the characters, and is not the type of novel I would usually read for this very reason.

I also like that the book raises some important questions. For instance, is a bad decision based on poverty enough reason for a court to remove a child from her parent? Should a white American couple be allowed to adopt a baby from a minority background when they do not have sufficient knowledge of her ethnic culture? This is a novel that really makes you think about the deeper topics affecting the characters.

In conclusion, this book explores some important issues in society and is certainly engaging with its storyline. There is no doubt that Ng is a talented writer, the issue simply being that the characterisation was not completely to my taste.

R/T: Thorn          (please see About section for information)                 

Rating: 3.5/5

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

  1. A very flamboyant writing style, I very much like it! 😊
    Truly fascinating reading your reviews, and ofcourse eagerly waiting for the next. They don’t come quick enough! AMAZING!

    Liked by 2 people

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