Book Talk: Little fires everywhere


The book cover looks like a photograph Mia would take.


Little Fires Everywhere is Celeste Ng’s second novel. Shaker Heights, Ohio is where she ( the writer’s name is pronounced ‘ing’) was brought up to be an adult and it is here that she has set her story. It is a privileged community where the people are well-meaning but “blind to their privileges”. Shaker Heights represents people who are blind to their own biases until they see it in others.

What made me want to read this book was not the popularity of her first book Everything I never told you, or the fact that she had won some prestigious awards for it.

No, it was not that. It was because, the beginning of the first chapter started like this:

” Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned down the house”.

I would later know that the story begins at the point of climax. I was already sitting up. Izzy as she is called in the rest of the story was called a ‘lunatic’. However the suggestion that Izzy would be long gone and that nobody would be there to defend her surely pointed to the fact that she was only a difficult child. Certainly she made an interesting character already.

Then Pearl is introduced as ‘Mia’s teenage daughter’ and then Trip, Lexie and Moody come into the picture as the other kids in the Richardson family. A story with five teenagers in it would surely have a lot of drama. Was reading the book going to be a worthwhile time spent, for the already busy young friends of mine? I decided to find out.

The story develops from two ends; the Richardson end and the Warren end. It would progress from opposite ends curving upwards seemingly creating a hyperbola of sorts , joining midway precisely at the vertex or the climax and plummeting down from there. However it does not crash in the end but somewhat hovers in the air letting the readers decide what next.

Let me explain. There are two families. One is the affluent Richardson family where the focus is on Elena Richardson, a mother of four teenagers. The other family is a mother daughter duo who can  barely make ends meet.

The Richardson mother is a journalist who although “wanted to stay home, to simply be with her children, her own mother had always scorned those women who did not work. ‘Wasting their potential,” she had sniffed.” You’ve got a good brain, Elena. You’re not just going to sit home and knit are you? A modern woman, she always implied, was capable – nay, required – to have it all.”

Mia Warren, mother of Pearl Warren on the other hand lives her life spending only on bare necessities. Even that, always finding the cheapest solutions, only because it was her choice. She had always lived her life according to her own rules.

Mia is an artist, “who would be famous someday… like de Kooning or Warhol or O’Keeffe,whose name everyone knew.” It was one project one town for her. After every project she would move to another. To be unsettled was normal for her in contrast to Elena whose life was all about preserving tradition,  and ‘planning’ the future. While Elena always took decisions based on the values passed down through generations in her family, Mia’s past reveals that she walked out of her family home where no one seemed to understand her ideas. She knew she was wanted elsewhere.

The lives of the teenagers evolve somewhere between those of Elena and Mia. Like Mia and Elena, Pearl and Izzy have an opposite take on life. Pearl admires Elena and wants to be a part of the Richardson family. She longs for the stability it provides as that is the one thing lacking in her life. Izzy fantasizes on having Mia as her mother because she like Mia feels trapped within her own family. For Mia, Izzy in the end does what Mia herself might have done as a teenager.

The conflicts of teenagers are looked at from different angles through relationships of Lexie and Brian, Moody and Pearl, Trip and Pearl, Izzy and her family, Pearl and her mother.

Celeste Ng explores the universality of motherhood, where mothers’ love can sometimes be seen to go beyond the obvious stronghold of their own child. The bond between Mia and Izzy is evident when Mia hugs Izzy and implies she has to be strong, since she had no choice but to leave the latter behind and move on. Lexie also feels its better to be with Mia when she was going through one of the toughest phases in her life. Again Linda McCullough’s, an old friend of Elena’s, loves  May Ling Chow like any mother would even before the adoption was complete. Elena herself although is not seen bonding with Pearl has sudden pangs thinking about the young girl.

The narrative of Little fires Everywhere abounds with little contrasts everywhere. Contrast between Elena and Mia, between Pearl and Izzy, in the approach of the mothers, between the sympathizers of Bebe and Linda whose child was either May Ling  or Mirabelle. There are contrasts also between the races and between lifestyles in spite of the neutral projection of Shaker Heights.

The novel comes back to where it started. While the story starts with the coming of Mia and Pearl to Shaker Heights as Elena’s tenants, it ends with them leaving. However the final knot to the story is left loose as it is the case in real life. There are countless possibilities and we can choose any depending on our sensibilities or imagination.

I leave it there like Celeste Ng does in her novel. I’ve liked it because it touched me in several ways.Would you though.?……. what are you thinking?

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