Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.
Summary: When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a successful Shaker Heights, Ohio family, it sets in motion a series of events, “little fires” that culminate in a fire that burns down the Richardson home, and transforms the lives of both families.
Elena Richardson, matriarch of a seemingly perfect and successful family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, sleeps in one Saturday to awaken to a house on fire–little fires started in the center of each of the beds in the house. Elena, the keeper of rules in a community of rules watches the house burn down as her “perfect” children and husband gather–all except Izzy, who always pushed against the rules and is no where to be found. It is Izzy who set the fires, and has fled. How did all this happen?
The little fires begin when Mia Warren and her high school daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment Elena owns. The two of them have lived a gypsy life, living only long enough in any one community for Mia to compose a series of photographs, the sales of which, along with odd jobs provide enough for them to live on, before they pack what fits into their VW Rabbit and move on. But this time they hope to stay.
Little fires. Elena’s son Moody is curious and meets Pearl and instantly falls in love and draws Pearl into the affluent life of the family with older brother Trip, and sisters Lexie and Izzy.
Little fires. Elena visits the duplex and sees Mia’s art–photographs altered or with other objects superimposed that she sends to a New York dealer. Hearing Mia works at a Chinese restaurant to make ends meet, she invites Mia to clean and cook in exchange for the rent in what seems a noble gesture of supporting the arts.
Little fires. Izzy is suspended for standing up to a bullying music teacher, and opens up to Mia, who asks, “what are you going to do?” opening up possibilities Izzy has never thought of before. Izzy begins assisting Mia in her work.
Little fires. Lexie and Izzy see a photograph of a younger Mia holding an infant (Pearl) in the Cleveland Museum of Art by a famous New York photographer, Pauline Hawthorne. They talk Mrs. Richardson, who is a reporter for a local newspaper, to investigate the back story. In the process, she uncovers secrets Mia has kept even from her own daughter.
Little fires. Mia figures out that the Asian-American baby who is a ward of the state that the McCullough’s, close and childless friends of the Richardsons, want to adopt, is the baby her co-worker at the Chinese restaurant, Bebe, left at a fire station when she had been abandoned and in post-partum despair. Mia lets this information slip, leading to a custody case that is all over the press, and that divides the community, and fires Elena’s resentment of Mia, who seems to represent everything Elena is not, and perhaps turned away from for her successful, rule-abiding existence.
Little fires. Pearl and Trip become involved, as much at Pearl’s initiative as Trip’s, destroying Moody’s friendship with Pearl. Pearl helps Lexie get an abortion, even letting Lexie substitute Pearl’s name on the patient record, and then brings Lexie home to be cared for by Mia afterwards.
Little fires that in the end lead to the setting of little fires that burn down the house. At one point Mia talks with Izzy about how, like prairie fires, “you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over.” The fire that destroys brings new life to the prairie. The question is, will it do the same for all the people caught up in these little fires? What will Mia do about the secrets of her past that have been uncovered? And what will Elena do, seeing the destruction of her perfect life by her wayward daughter?
I was drawn to this book because the author grew up in and writes about Shaker Heights. We lived for nine years in its poorer, blue collar neighbor down the road, Maple Heights. I knew many of the places about which she wrote, ate at some of the restaurants, shopped at Shaker Square and occasionally at Heinen’s, and admired the ambiance we couldn’t touch. We knew about some of the rules. Her portrait of this earliest of model suburbs rang true.
As I read, I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry. I once had a friend who observed that the American dream is killing us. This book suggests how our suburban dreams may kill us, how the ideal life of successful spouses, kids in good schools groomed for Ivy League admissions, and how a life of following the rules, a life both socially conscious and socially tone deaf may destroy something of what makes us and others unique.