What happens when the perfect world of a planned community clashes with the messiness of the reals world? Can we really shield ourselves from chaos with a set of rules for living? Can racism be denied out of a community? Little Fires Everywhere asks those fundamental questions in a serious but often also lightly satirical way. Where irony barely covers the despair that lies under it. A veneer of perfection covering the desperation.
I didn’t love the first book by Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You, so I would probably not buy this one despite all the noise around it. But then there are always the surprises that come in my subscription boxes. And this was one of them. Once I had it I could just as well read it.
We visit a community in Shaker Heights, here Ng again reaches to her biography to build a convincing environment. Shaker Heights is a planned community, a suburb of Cleveland. And it is planned in every possible way, with the community living there self-policing the adherence to rules. Life is good, simple, but also rich, with no conflict and any eccentricity quickly dealt with. We get to know this world through the Richardsons family, living in the Shakers almost from the beginning. They are a perfect family mother working as a journalist in a local paper, a father with a high-powered job in the city, and three perfect children. Their life is planned from the get-go, the only thing they have to do is execute.
And all would probably go according to plan, with even the teenage rebellion of the youngest daughter Izzy probably slowly dissipating. IT would go according to plan if it wasn’t for the sudden appearance of Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl. Mrs Richardson rents them the family’s spare apartment, feeling very charitable as she helps a single mother. Pearl quickly gets close to Richardson’s children and spends a lot of her time in their house.
What is new for Mia and Pearl Warren is that they decided to stay in Shaker Heights. Before that, they were moving several times a year, whenever Mia, an artist, would finish her project, and feel the urge to look for inspiration in a new place. Pearl took it in her stride, so she was habitually not making any relationships or friendships. But now it is different, she is fascinated by Richardson’s orderly and planned life. Mia feels it as a bit of a threat, but she lets it develop.
The balance though fragile could probably remain like this. But friends of Richardsons try to adopt a Chinese-American baby, that was abandoned in a fire station. Mia quickly realizes this is a child of her coworker from a Chinese restaurant, who after abandoning the baby is now frantically looking for it. As soon as Mia tells Bebe where her baby might be all hell breaks loose. The neighborhood splits, battle lines are drawn. As can be expected Mia and Richardsons find themselves on the opposite side of the trenches. With the children caught in the middle.
And then Mrs. Richardson’s journalist instinct raises its head until now covered in the sand of local news and market openings. She certainly finds more than she bargained for.
It is a satire at a rich middle-class society, living in its own bubble. But also a harsh condemnation of its lack of openness, tolerance and only superficial charity. A stark observation of privilege that is so entrenched it completely lacks self-awareness. But Ng does not side with Mia Warren completely either, she prefers to pose questions. Because no one here is entirely right, the world is way too complex for that. And in this I think lies the strength of this book. It starts with an easy polarized view: middle-class settled mother vs vagabond artist. But all is not that simple. And people get hurt in the process.
I still think Ng has a penchant for deploying cliches and stereotypes to drive her point home, but in this book, she pulls it off better. She gets the message across, even if sometimes it is in a bit heavy-handed way. And the story certainly is readable, at times maybe just a bit too readable. It feels too light for the matter it is dealing with. But then such an approach is also needed, to raise awareness in a broader audience. Not everyone wants to read super-serious books, about super-serious matters. And Little Fires Everywhere is also a good story, the perfect book for the beach.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska