Little Fires Everywhere
Celeste Ng begins her second novel with, quite literally, little fires everywhere when the Richardsons' house in an affluent suburb (Shaker Heights) goes up in flames. One of the four Richardson teenagers, Lexie, reports: "The fireman said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin. Not an accident." (6) And then Ng takes us back in time, to a little under a year earlier, to unravel the mystery of the fires: who set them?
The story centers on two families: the Richardsons, your classic upper-middle-class white suburban family with four teenagers, and the Warrens, (Mia and her daughter, Pearl) who drift into the quiet suburb. Mia - a free spirit, a photographer - rents a house from the Richardsons. Pearl quickly becomes entangled with the Richardson kids, and her mother gets caught up in everything as well. I won't spoil you, because so much of the story hinges on the beautiful twists and turns of the plot. However, one thread of plot focuses on a custody battle between family friends of the Richardsons and a single Chinese mother. The mother, Bebe, struggling with postpartum depression had left her baby at the fire station in town, thinking she could return to get her in a few days. The baby was quickly taken into social services and an adoption process begins by a childless couple. When the case goes to court - should Bebe get her child back? - Ng expertly dives into questions of race and class.
Ng herself grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio: “what I remember about race relations in [Shaker Heights in] the 1990s,” she told The Guardian, “is that you showed your awareness by saying you didn’t see race, that you were color-blind...the assumption was still that everybody is equal, we can overcome racism. Now our understanding is more complicated. Everyone is not equal – we have a bigger understanding of privilege.”
The story doesn't end in a satisfying way; but perhaps, that is the point. Rating: ★★★★