House on fire. Getty Images
When the Richardson family home burns down, suspicions arise in suburbia, in Celeste Ng’s second novel. Getty Images

Book review: Celeste Ng pours fuel on the fire of social division in her acutely-observed novel

The worst thing that could happen in a scrupulously planned, white-picket fence community like Shakers Heights is flames engulfing the plush house of one of the most esteemed families residing there. Who set the fire and why?

Thus begins this dynamic novel from a promising new writer about class, privilege and motherhood.

Celeste Ng shot to fame with her bestselling debut Everything I Never Told You, a literary mystery about a Chinese-American family who are forced to divulge secrets that they have kept from each other after the death of a precocious child. While I found the missing girl plot a bit generic in that one, Little Fires Everywhere, in contrast, is a more well-rounded book and has that certain "je ne sais quoi" that makes this social novel an engrossing read.

The book begins with a dramatic scene – the imposing six-bedroom Richardson house is in flames while the usually coiffed and self-possessed Elena Richardson watches, aghast in her robe.

“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” someone reports.

The plot does not concern itself with the mystery about who started this blaze but instead focuses on the events that led to this appalling incident.

Trouble starts to brew in Shaker Heights, Ohio, when Mia Warren, an artist, and her teenage daughter Pearl, move into a little rental house owned by the Richardsons.

The picture-perfect Richardsons are progressive and liberal within the cushy confines of their privilege. The rapier-sharp portrayal of the family evokes the “post-racial” ethos of the 1990s.

Their complacency is apparent, with statements like the one their daughter, Lexie, makes when she claims “No one sees race here”.

The flimsiness of this glib argument is soon exposed in the story. Mrs Richardson embodies the guiding principles of the progressive liberal community in which she has lived all her life.

She writes feel-good pieces for the local paper and is the kind of woman who, rather than joining the late 1960s anti-war protests, signed petitions, wrote letters to the editors and stitched a peace sign onto her knapsack. Ng scrutinises the pragmatic politics of the privileged shrewdly.

Pearl, who has so far lived an itinerant life, is captivated by the Richardsons’ four teenage kids: Lexie’s hunky brother, Trip; the idealist Moody;
and their rebellious little sister, Izzy.

Pearl is infatuated by the way the family lives in a state of perpetual domestic perfection. Her crisp observations of the Richardsons’ lifestyle are laced with laconic wit; their palatial house was like “the idea of a house, some archetype brought to life”.

While from outside this family seems to have set themselves into a “tableau of domestic bliss”, if you look closely enough, as Pearl and Mia do, you soon start to discern the cracks papered over by disciplined domesticity.

The storyline shrewdly juxtaposes the class conflict as the two families grow closer. Mia is ambivalent about her daughter’s increasing interest in the painfully prosaic and affluent suburban ways of the Richardsons and how it will make her daughter perceive their own bohemian lifestyle.

Izzy is the black sheep of Richardson family and is fascinated by Mia and Pearl’s peripatetic lifestyle and utter disregard of convention.

A free spirit, she is straining against the domestic captivity her family have chained themselves to and is soon propelled to take drastic measures to break free.

Shaker Heights is the kind of place where everything is assiduously planned, from the colour of the houses to the mowing of lawns (otherwise expect a “polite but stern letter from the city”) and strategically placed schools.

This peculiar community is portrayed with the mordant humour reminiscent of The Stepford Wives in its satirical description of suburbia.

However, maybe because Ng actually lived in Shaker Heights, Ohio, until leaving for university, this rendering seems genuine and does not come off as a crude caricature of bourgeois lifestyle. The tranquil, regimented life of the town is thrown off balance by a custody battle that will polarise the community.

The McCulloughs' dream of finally having a child has come true in May Ling, a 1-year-old Chinese girl they have adopted. May Ling was abandoned by her mum Bebe in a moment of desperation outside a firehouse but now she wants her child back.

It’s here that the moral dilemma comes in. Will May-Ling have a better life with her destitute, Chinese immigrant single mother or her adoptive rich white family who can provide a plush life but whose ideas of keeping her birth culture alive include dining at Pearl of the Orient and getting her stuffed pandas?

The Richardsons have close ties with the McCulloughs while Mia is a close friend of Bebe, and this is where the gulf between the classes and racial divides comes to the forefront.

Elena becomes suspicious of Mia’s loyalties to a careless mother and, in an attempt to settle scores, she starts poking around Mia’s little-known history.

What she discovers has far-reaching consequences for both the families.

Whether it is social issues like privilege and race or personal ones like motherhood and relationships, Little Fires Everywhere seamlessly weaves the threads of these intersecting issues in a compelling narrative.

It explores the different facets of motherhood and its struggles with nuanced insight. Elena is a stickler for rules so naturally, her unpredictable Izzy makes her uneasy and she becomes even more diligent in drawing boundaries around her.

One overarching theme of the book is the ways in which mothers and children intuitively know each other and how they push each other’s’ buttons.

Apart from providing astute observations on the socially advantaged class and their self-serving ideas of liberalism, Ng uses the custody battle as an agency to voice her discontent about the lack of diversity in the mainstream and the tone-deaf attitude of the privileged white community.

While she exercises great restraint in her handling of other issues, when it comes to this, her critique overpowers the story arc.

As a result, the effectiveness of the book falters in the latter part as it becomes overtly political.

The book could have easily been more cohesive but those are minor quibbles in what is otherwise an exceptionally meaty novel.

Little Fires Everywhere is a blazing portrait of American suburbia in the late 1990s that interrogates how far the United States has or has not come in terms of racial discrimination and social hierarchy.


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