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.

___________________

Read more:

___________________

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
Number of staff: 120
Investment: Bootstrapped, with support from Insead and Egyptian government, seed round of
$3.6 million led by Global Ventures

ROUTE TO TITLE

Round 1: Beat Leolia Jeanjean 6-1, 6-2
Round 2: Beat Naomi Osaka 7-6, 1-6, 7-5
Round 3: Beat Marie Bouzkova 6-4, 6-2
Round 4: Beat Anastasia Potapova 6-0, 6-0
Quarter-final: Beat Marketa Vondrousova 6-0, 6-2
Semi-final: Beat Coco Gauff 6-2, 6-4
Final: Beat Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 6-2

Confirmed bouts (more to be added)

Cory Sandhagen v Umar Nurmagomedov
Nick Diaz v Vicente Luque
Michael Chiesa v Tony Ferguson
Deiveson Figueiredo v Marlon Vera
Mackenzie Dern v Loopy Godinez

Tickets for the August 3 Fight Night, held in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, went on sale earlier this month, through www.etihadarena.ae and www.ticketmaster.ae.

KEY DATES IN AMAZON'S HISTORY

July 5, 1994: Jeff Bezos founds Cadabra Inc, which would later be renamed to Amazon.com, because his lawyer misheard the name as 'cadaver'. In its earliest days, the bookstore operated out of a rented garage in Bellevue, Washington

July 16, 1995: Amazon formally opens as an online bookseller. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought becomes the first item sold on Amazon

1997: Amazon goes public at $18 a share, which has grown about 1,000 per cent at present. Its highest closing price was $197.85 on June 27, 2024

1998: Amazon acquires IMDb, its first major acquisition. It also starts selling CDs and DVDs

2000: Amazon Marketplace opens, allowing people to sell items on the website

2002: Amazon forms what would become Amazon Web Services, opening the Amazon.com platform to all developers. The cloud unit would follow in 2006

2003: Amazon turns in an annual profit of $75 million, the first time it ended a year in the black

2005: Amazon Prime is introduced, its first-ever subscription service that offered US customers free two-day shipping for $79 a year

2006: Amazon Unbox is unveiled, the company's video service that would later morph into Amazon Instant Video and, ultimately, Amazon Video

2007: Amazon's first hardware product, the Kindle e-reader, is introduced; the Fire TV and Fire Phone would come in 2014. Grocery service Amazon Fresh is also started

2009: Amazon introduces Amazon Basics, its in-house label for a variety of products

2010: The foundations for Amazon Studios were laid. Its first original streaming content debuted in 2013

2011: The Amazon Appstore for Google's Android is launched. It is still unavailable on Apple's iOS

2014: The Amazon Echo is launched, a speaker that acts as a personal digital assistant powered by Alexa

2017: Amazon acquires Whole Foods for $13.7 billion, its biggest acquisition

2018: Amazon's market cap briefly crosses the $1 trillion mark, making it, at the time, only the third company to achieve that milestone

The specs

Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo

Power: 201hp at 5,200rpm

Torque: 320Nm at 1,750-4,000rpm

Transmission: 6-speed auto

Fuel consumption: 8.7L/100km

Price: Dh133,900

On sale: now


Latest
Most Read
Top Videos