Celeste Ng’s second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” reads a bit like a fable about the effects of living in the manicured suburbs. This particular suburb, Shaker Heights, Ohio, was one of the first planned communities in the United States and just happens to be the hometown of the author.
When the novel opens with the large home of its central characters burning to the ground, the reader knows there is trouble in paradise. The novel’s message seems to be “Perfect Is the Enemy of Art and Nuance.” But if the author’s fire-inspired imagery is at times heavy-handed, the depth of her characters, the deftness of her plotting and the texture of her created world lift the book and provide surprises.
The Richardsons’ big house has been torched by Izzy, the youngest of four siblings and the wayward member of the tribe. This is not a spoiler; the reader learns this in the opening chapter. The rest of the novel is an unspooling of how events came to this final conflagration.
Mrs. Richardson is a reporter for a weekly newspaper, and her husband, Mr. Richardson, a defense attorney. In one of the curiosities of the novel, the couple are consistently referred to by their honorifics, even though the novel is set in 1997. Mrs. Richardson had her children early with stair-step pregnancies so she could climb back into her career.
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“Lexie, Trip, Moody: senior, junior, sophomore. Beside them they felt the hole that Izzy, the freshman, the black sheep, the wild card, had left behind,” Ng writes.
Mrs. Richardson’s family goes back three generations in Shaker Heights, and she conforms to the ethos of the suburb: “In fact, the city’s motto was … ‘Most communities just happen; the best are planned’: the underlying philosophy being that everything could — and should — be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.”
Mrs. Richardson sees herself as altruistic, and part of how she practices that is by renting out the upstairs of a duplex she owns to those in need. So it is that she leases the apartment to Mia, a photographer who lives on a shoestring, and her academically talented 15-year-old daughter Pearl (yes, the literary reference is intentional as Ng over-explains later in the book).
Sensitive son Moody is immediately drawn to Pearl, and they become inseparable friends. Until they moved to Shaker Heights, Mia’s modus operandi was to work on a photography project for four to six months, then decamp to the next town and the next project. By her count, they have lived in 46 towns. But Pearl’s illness the spring before has compelled Mia to promise her daughter that they will stay put.
When shy Moody introduces Pearl to his family, a decision he later regrets, she is drawn to the roomy house, the confident Lexie, the handsome Trip and the cozy atmosphere of this affluent nuclear family. Mrs. Richardson hires Mia to do light housekeeping and cook dinner for the family to help her out, and also “to keep an eye on Mia, as you might … on a dangerous beast.”
The mysterious Mia flouts all the conventions Mrs. Richardson lives by. She has no husband, and she and Pearl possess only the belongings they can fit in a Volkswagen Rabbit. Opposites attract, and other people’s nests beckon. Soon Izzy is spending as much time at Mia’s apartment doing photo work as Pearl is at the Richardsons’ six-bedroom home.
A subplot involves Mrs. Richardson’s best friend, Mrs. McCullough, who is in the process of adopting a Chinese-American baby after over a decade of trying to have a child of her own. The impoverished biological mother, Bebe, who left the child at a fire station, surfaces to claim her maternal rights.
Bebe is a foil for the well-intentioned but culturally insensitive Mrs. McCullough, just like the bohemian Mia is for the over-controlling Mrs. Richardson. And not so coincidentally, Bebe and Mia work together as waitresses at Lucky Palace, one of Mia’s other jobs.
Best-laid plans soon spiral out of control and sparks fly literally and figuratively in this tightly plotted novel that addresses issues of economic class, race, ethnicity and privilege. The novel asks what makes for a good parent and provides no easy answers.
The “unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous” are not so easily avoided.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Topeka, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (338 pages; Penguin Press; $27)