Something to Talk About

*2020 UPDATE: You can now listen to me discuss the TV show version of Little Fires Everywhere and how it compares to the novel via The Biblio Files on your favorite podcast platform.*

The rumors, in this case, were true: Celeste Ng’s second novel was every bit the banger that critics claimed it to be.

Little Fires Everywhere lit up every best-of 2017 list, it became a New York Times best seller, every book club was reading it, and rightfully so. Therefore, I was very much looking forward to diving right in, and apparently so was everyone else in Jersey City because I had to wait two months before it was ready at my library.

There’s a reason the hype exists. Ng’s words flow effortlessly while telling a complex story that we know all too well and that shamefully intrigues us. The one where rumors and gossip spread so fast, like a fire that can’t be put out. They can’t be tamed, and neither could Ng’s book. It didn’t ignite several small flames as its name suggests though; its greatness was one giant wildfire.

Little Fires Everywhere

“I don’t have a plan, I’m afraid, but then, no one really does, no matter what they say.” — Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere begins quickly as flames literally engulf — in the first chapter — one big, beautiful home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a place where Ng once lived and that’s quite proud of its uniformity. Just like the real Shaker Heights, the fictional town has been stringently planned and developed, with specific codes for its buildings, houses, and roads. Although the residents don’t acknowledge it, they prefer their people to be of a certain pedigree as well — one that doesn’t lack success and stability.

The Richardsons fit that mold. The mother, Elena, a journalist, came back to her hometown after college, and it’s where she and her attorney husband have raised three successful, beautiful, and unique children, as well as one oddball daughter who is in constant conflict with the rest of the family. It’s the Richardson’s house that starts the novel ablaze the day after the newest Shaker Heights residents, nomads Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, unexpectedly leave town.

The Warren ladies arrived to the planned community with an aura of mystery, and their interesting lives have an impact on all of the Richardsons. Their involvement is too much for Elena who begins digging into Mia’s past to discover where she comes from and why she’s interrupting Elena’s perfect world. As Mia’s past life is brought to the surface, every character struggles with their own challenges that eventually all become tangled into a messy web with gossip spinning the truth into lies.

“One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time they were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure what side of the line you stood on.” — Little Fires Everywhere

The most powerful part of Ng’s work is her writing and how she manages to turn her storytelling into gossip itself. Somehow she writes — from an external point of view — with the crude tone that gossip bears so you can feel its consequences, how it spreads like fire and hurts those along its path. Even when the characters can’t hear the lies going around town about themselves, you can feel their worlds closing in while the tension in Ng’s language grows in palpability.

“You knew, from then on, that the world was a smaller place than you’d expected.” — Little Fires Everywhere

Interestingly, despite this tension, the climax isn’t what forces you to nearly rip out the pages. There’s another characteristic at play making you do that. Yes, you’re yearning to know Mia’s story and how she came to Shaker Heights, how all of these little tales will culminate at the end, exactly how the Richardson’s house was set on fire and by whom. But even the latter wasn’t a total surprise.

It’s that tension in Ng’s words and how relationships develop around them that kept me furiously engaged with the content and with this seemingly perfect town that was bound to combust sooner or later.

Ng doesn’t explore just one type of relationship. She captures those among varying family members, between neighbors new and old, those within a small town, and, most intricately, those between a mother and daughter. There’s a mother-daughter relationship that burns of hatred yet yearns for love, two of longing — both for what you gave up and what you’re trying to hold onto — and one that is so special that it sparks envy.

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once.” — Little Fires Everywhere

The interactions among these relationships expose the characters’ greatest flaws yet also their compassion, allowing you to empathize while trying to formulate an opinion about them. Even the most dreadful characters have shining moments, and implicitly exposing that requires some skill.

Leah DeCesare of Huffington Post echoes my sentiment about this novel. “[This] will be one of those books that stays with me,” she writes in her review. “There is so much beauty, truth, pain and humanity in this book that I found myself underlining and pondering passages, rereading them to savor them and roll them around in my mind.”

It’s not always easy to pinpoint why you love a book so much, but it’s easy with this one. It’s the intermingling dramas, how the characters related to and interacted with one another, the tension, the language, the turns of phrases, the symbolism (with gossip spreading like fire and culminating in a major combustion — talk about lit). Ng nailed the true essence of storytelling in her second novel, so much so that it inspired a series starring Elle and Chenille. My emotions are ready for the spark that it will surely ignite, and I can’t wait to see what Ng blesses us with next time.

“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.” — Little Fires Everywhere


4 thoughts on “Something to Talk About

  1. Pingback: Ranked: Reads in 2018 | Big Little Literature

  2. Pingback: Family Portrait | Big Little Literature

  3. Pingback: Little Fires Everywhere: Episodes 4-7 | Big Little Literature

  4. Pingback: Little Fires Everywhere: Series Finale | Big Little Literature

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