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Suburban Scorched Earth
Last year, when I was going through a 2016 of anxiety, increasing self-doubt, and unfulfilling employment, I wrote a short review for Quail Bell about a book called Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. In that, I toke about how Ng connected with me by writing about a girl named Lydia, whose death revealed the fragile, lonely person she really was. Naturally, I was hooked, and couldn’t stop recommending the book to people. I even got to meet Ng at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2017 conference in Washington D.C., where I rushed to get her to sign my copy of the book after awkwardly greeting her by saying “Hi. I love you.”
When I learned Ng’s next book, Little Fires Everywhere, was coming out in September 2017, I was super thrilled. I happened to find a copy while I was in New York City about two weeks ago (a first edition signed copy!) and decided to read it while I was on an eight-hour train ride from D.C. to Boston for a writing retreat with the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop.
Little Fires Everywhere is set in a Cleveland suburb in the mid-90s, centered around two families. The Richardsons are the picture-perfect family, with matriarch Elena ensuring everything is perfectly ordered and appropriate for the community of Shaker Heights, particularly with her four children. She rents half a duplex to the Warrens, consisting of single mom Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl. The story follows roughly a year with these families, showing how they bounce off one another, particularly when an adoption scandal divides their community. Secrets are exposed and bonds are broken, and one has to wonder who will be left unscathed after everything has burned down.
What’s really great about Ng’s writing and her stories is that there are a plethora of characters to follow, to identify with, and to get into the heads of. Everything I Never Told You did that really well with Lydia, her parents, her siblings, and the people peripheral to them. This book has way more characters to follow and to get into the head of, and while some are ultimately more developed than others, each one presents enough complexity and relatability that I found myself struggling to find one person I identified with more than the others.
At the heart of this story is a story about homes. The community of Shaker Heights was built to be a perfectly planned community in the early 20th century, and the characters in this story are all defined by the homes they occupy and the spaces they create. Elena’s home is large, clean, and has a lot of details to it, showing their affluence, family history, and the control Elena has on her world. Mia’s, by contrast, is defined by how little is in there, from scant furniture collected from thrift shops to mattresses on the floor. What’s interesting is that these homes each have their pros and cons, and the way characters move between them for solace is fascinating. Pearl may like the Richardson’s home for its luxury and space, but Elena’s daughter Izzy feels more comfortable spending time in Mia’s living room helping with photography projects.
The court case in the middle of the story even adds to that. In the story, a Chinese immigrant abandoned her baby at a fire station, and after finally building a stable home, discovers her child is soon to be adopted by some friends of the Richardsons. A case forms as to whether or not the child should go back to her biological mother or stay with the stable, wealthy couple that can provide more for her than her mother could. One of the best parts of the story is when the case against Bebe Chow digs up her history and how she’d be unfit to raise her child is broken up with asides from Bebe explaining each of these issues. It provides a look into the struggling experience of a poor immigrant that many of these cases may not even bother giving time to.
But what I found most interesting about Little Fires Everywhere is how much the story goes over the ideas of escape from these spaces. Throughout the story we see characters who are constantly on the move, going from place to place, or changing their lives to be somewhere else. There’s a fantastic section in the middle of the book that explains Mia’s history, explaining why this artist would continually uproot her life and her daughter’s life. For Mia, space and home aren’t defined by physical spaces but emotional resonance. She applies this also to her relationships and her work. She takes Izzy in as a surrogate daughter and shows her the kind of affection and understanding Elena never could, and when you learn Mia’s history, it becomes completely understandable.
Little Fires Everywhere, like Everything I Never Told You, was the book I needed to read when I read it. It has a sprawling cast, incredible depth, and a really fascinating and complex story. I feel like I could get ten people to read this, sit them down in a circle, and ask them to try and take sides on the various debates, and I could probably get ten different answers. I feel you can view most of the characters as protagonists and antagonists, as sympathetic and unsympathetic, and so on, and there may never be any certainty in any of those choices. It’s exactly the kind of book I needed to read before going on a writing retreat (coincidentally, the story I’m mainly working on is a family drama), and I’m so glad I allowed Ng to take me to such an interesting place again.