I knew, on finishing “Little Fires Everywhere” that I had enjoyed the book and that it was a first-rate piece of writing, excellently narrated. Yet I wasn’t clear enough about what I thought of the book to write a review. So, I’ve let a few weeks pass, let the ideas and the images settle and gotten a little space from the characters and now I’m starting to see some shapes.
I think my inability to see the whole book at once is a consequence of how the book is designed. The authorial voice is used throughout, guiding us through the thoughts and emotions of the characters as they react to the little fires of passion, most of them related to motherhood, that challenge and or define them. Yet, although I hear the author’s voice all the time, by the end of the novel, the author had not given me any unequivocal answers as to whose side she is on. I think this is one of the key strengths of the book. It refuses to be didactic or polarising. It puts forward the views of both sides and asks you to think, to access your emotions. Perhaps to start a little fire of your own.
The book brings together two families, Mia and her daughter, who live a nomadic life, with Mia working on her art as a photographer while raising her daughter, and the Richardsons, mother, father and four children, raised in the idyllic, safe, solidly upper-middle-class Shaker Heights. Mia rents an apartment from Mrs Richardson. Their children, all in their teens, start to spend time together, Mia starts to work part-time cooking and cleaning for the Richardsons so that she can observe the family her, previously independent and possibly lonely, daughter has fallen under the spell of.
This “compare and contrast lifestyles” set-up is used to examine choices on motherhood, different types of mother-daughter relationships, the rights and wrongs of adoption (especially of a Chinese baby by a childless white couple) of abortion, and of surrogacy. It looks at whether families are born or made or both. It contrasts choosing to follow rules with choosing to follow your passion and asks if either choice makes sense.
It does all this without turning into an ethics essay. It stays focused on the people, the choices that have made them who they are and the potential that they have for changing and or for becoming even more deeply the people that they already are
The issues the characters deal with are controversial, have a high potential for conflict and speak deeply to core beliefs. So how do I get to the end of a novel told in the authorial voice and not know what the author’s answer is?
Well, I needed to step back. I think Celeste Ng didn’t set out to take sides on the issues. She wants us to understand that there are no simple answers. If there were, these little passion-fed fires wouldn’t break out everywhere.
The message I took from the book was that little fires are both inevitable and necessary. If we’re lucky, they give us the passage to find an answer that is right for us. Yet the fires are dangerous, They can get out of control. So we are all faced with a choice on what to do with the fires? Do we damp them down, avoiding risk by starving them of oxygen? Do we spread the flame to others? Do we limit the damage? our passions, cutting off their oxygen to avoid risks?
Good questions. In “Little Fires Everywhere” Celeste Ng shows us all of those choices but leaves us to decide which to take for ourselves. Along the way, she builds up some memorable characters that start to feel like family.
To give you a flavour of the prose and the use of metaphor, I’ve quoted a section from the middle of the book, where the author shares Mrs Richardson’s thoughts on passion and rules.
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks lept like flees and spread as rapidly. A breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic Torch. Or perhaps to tend it carefully like like an Eternal Flame A reminder of light and goodness that would never, could never, set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled, Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key she thought was to avoid conflagration.”
“Rules existed for a reason. If you followed them, you would succeed. If you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
If this appeals to you, I recommend the audiobook version. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of Jennifer Lim’s narration