By Jhenna Wieman
Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, was a national and international bestseller, and her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, now available in paperback, does not disappoint. The novel is set in Shaker Heights, a community planned so specifically that there is a siren on Halloween announcing the start and end of trick-or-treating festivities. Trash is picked up from each resident’s backyard to avoid the unsightly appearance of trash cans on the curb, and the city’s motto is “Most communities just happen; the best are planned.”
Ng builds a large cast of characters that run deep. Mia Warren is a quirky artist who travels around the country with her daughter,Pearl. When they land somewhere, they stay just as long as it takes Mia to complete one project. Then, she sends the project off to a gallery in New York where her work is sold. She makes just enough money to get by with the help of various side jobs. Mia has promised her daughter that Shaker Heights is where they will finally let their roots grow. They are able to afford to rent half of a duplex thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Richardson, her wealthy landlady.
Like the town they live in, the Richardsons’ life did not “just happen.” Instead, it is a life planned meticulously. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson have four kids: Trip, a senior; Lexie, a junior; Moody, a sophomore; and Izzy, a freshman. Trip is the typical jock, and the character with the least depth, though we do see some complexities emerge as the book goes on. Lexie, like her mother, finds pleasure in doing good deeds for other people. Mrs. Richardson chooses Mia and Pearl as tenants because they fit the ideal profile she had set out to find: “a kind person to whom she could do a kind turn, and who would appreciate her kindness.” It gave her “immense satisfaction” to imagine them in her apartment, “Pearl doing her homework at the kitchen table, Mia perhaps working on a painting or a sculpture.” Lexie takes it upon herself to give fashion advice, old clothes, and social capital to Pearl, transforming her into her carbon copy.
Moody and Izzy, the younger two, are the counterculture in the family. Moody writes songs, plays the guitar, and reads poetry. Izzy donates all the dresses her mother buys for her and protests her enrollment in dance classes by standing on stage with “not your puppet” written on her forehead. In the beginning of the book, we hardly see Izzy. Usually we just hear her “above them, somewhere overhead” practicing her violin. She becomes almost a mythical creature to the reader. The rest of the characters ignore her unless they are commenting on her questionable mental state. When she meets Mia, however, she emerges and becomes very important to the story.
Moody becomes infatuated with Pearl the first day the Warrens move into the duplex. He tries for some time to keep her hidden, but eventually she goes to his house and grows a similar infatuation with his family. Moody marvels at Mia and Pearl’s unique life, thinking, “Watching the Warrens live was like watching a magic trick.” Pearl feels that “the Richardsons must have arranged themselves as a tableau for her enjoyment” as if each part of their life was so carefully put together that it could be one of her mother’s art pieces. The same goes for Mrs. Richardson and Mia. The whole novel is a study in the idea that “opposites attract,” except for the bond between Mia and Izzy, who are arguably the two most important characters to the bigger plot. The relationships that Ng builds between each character are really what make the story. The true nature of each individual is revealed based on what they latch onto in the other characters, making each character’s depth enhance that of the others.
Everything is going fine until a twist, outside of both families, causes Mia and Mrs. Richardson to choose sides. First, Pearl begins to notice the income gap between the two families when she asks her mother an important question in front of the Richardsons. Ng juxtaposes the two lifestyles perfectly in one paragraph:
Pearl realized she’d gone about this all wrong. She should never have asked her mother like this, in the Richardson kitchen with its granite countertops and its stainless-steel fridge and its Italian terracotta tiles, in front of the Richardson kids in their bright, buoyant North Face jackets, especially in front of Lexie, who still had the keys to her Explorer dangling from one hand. If she’d waited until they were alone, back at home in the dim little kitchen in their half a house on Winslow Road, perched on their mismatched chairs at the one remaining leaf of their salvaged table, perhaps her mother would have told her.
Arranging these details in this way not only shows the reader the collision between the two worlds, but also shows that Pearl is finally starting to realize not just that the Richardsons lead an impressive life, but that, when the two are compared side by side, her own life is much less glamorous. Then, Mrs. Richardson and Mia find themselves on opposite ends of a very publicized local issue. From there, each relationship begins to falter, and past and present secrets begin to come to the surface.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story is that it begins at the end. Ng gives us a glimpse into the outcome of all the conflict, then flashes back to when Mia and Pearl arrive and it seems that there will never be any conflict at all. With every turn of the page it becomes harder and harder to stop reading.
Jhenna got her BA in English Writing Practices from Humboldt State University and is currently a MFA candidate at University of California Riverside. She also teaches Freshman English and Language Development at Citrus Hill High School. She lives in Murrieta with her husband, her goofy Beagle Shih Tzu mix, and her indifferent cat.