There’s a hypnotic energy to Celeste Ng’s writing that picks you up on the first page and carries you at a sprint to the end. Her micro-universe is drenched with conflict and drama, and each character is memorable, not in the traditional sense of being outlandish, provocative, and “unforgettable” in their loudness. But memorable in their believability, their realness and relatability.
Oh, and talk about killer opening lines: ‘Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.’
The Richardsons are perplexed by their daughter’s sudden psychotic decision to destroy the family home, and so the story begins with a rush to put out the flames and then an equally panicked search for Izzy, the arsonist.
Enter Mia and Pearl, single mother and only daughter duo, who not that long ago moved into a little rental home on Winslow Road. When they first arrived, nobody thought much of them. But Shaker Heights isn’t your usual neighbourhood. There are rules. Plenty and plenty of rules. Pearl has an instant connection with young Moody Richardson. For the first time in her life she feels it’s safe to do so: her mother, Mia, is a travelling artist, prone to uprooting their lives and disappearing to a new town whenever the creative urge hits her. This time, it’s different: Mia has sworn they’re staying in Shaker Heights for good.
For a fleeting moment Pearl glimpses a normal fifteen-year-old adolescence: she finds acceptance with Lexie, Moody, and Trip. Drinking at underage parties, watching movies together, complaining about teachers at school – for Pearl, it’s a dream.
And it doesn’t take long for head matriarch Elena Richardson to express some interest in Mia, offering her a job cleaning her house to help pay the rent (since her photography – like most art – doesn’t really pay the bills).
Izzy, the outcast of the Richardson family, is taken under Mia’s wing and begins to learn the art of photography. It’s as though they’ve swapped: Pearl spends all her time with the Richardsons; and Izzy with Mia, but although the families entwine and the peaceful suburban life starts seeming idyllic, it all crumbles when Pearl finds a photo of Mia in the local art gallery, cradling a baby that isn’t her. After confronting Mia, who denies all knowledge of the photo, everybody realises that Mia is harbouring mysterious secrets from the past.
But the little fires begin to spread everywhere when an old family friend of the Richardsons adopt a baby left at the local Fire Station in a moment of motherly psychosis. Mia happens to know who the mother is, and how much she wants her baby back. What unfolds is a custody battle like no other, with Elena and Mia on opposite sides.
As a writer, Celeste’s domestic neighbourhood word is attuned with sparkling detail, and the tensions that drive Little Fires Everywhere are poetic, well-observed, and exciting. It’s receiving rave reviews from high places, like this from Jodi Picoult: ‘I read Little Fires Everywhere in a single, breathless sitting’ – Jodi Picoult. And author of The Girl on the Train Paula Hawkins called it ‘witty, wise, and tender. It’s a marvel.’ We agree with her.
Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She attended Harvard University and earned a MFA from the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, was Amazon.com’s Best Book of 2014, and won the Hopwood Award, the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the American Library Association’s Alex Award. She is a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.