I read ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste Ng as part of ‘Asian Readathon’ as this was the readalong option for the month. The book falls into the general fiction genre and it currently has an average rating of 4.11 on Goodreads.
The book follows the story of a suburban family living in Shaver Heights. Mrs Richardson has always followed the rules of the neighbourhood and has raised her children this way, but when she rents out an apartment in one of their homes to Mia and Pearl Warren their whole family changes forever. Mia is an artist and the Richardson family feel inexplicably drawn to her and her daughter, they’re so different from the Richardsons with their lack of regards for rules in suburban life. When a custody battle erupts into public life in the community the relationships built between the two families begin to change and puts Mia and Mrs Richardson on two opposing sides, leading Mrs Richardson down a path that will change her forever.
“Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance. We all do things we regret now and then. You just have to carry them with you.”
I knew this book was going to be good but I wasn’t expecting to love it this much. I think I’m going to have a bit of hard time articulating my thoughts on this book, as it makes me feel so much. The story focuses largely on motherhood and the choices we make as people, and the novel constantly questions you on what’s right and wrong – and challenges you on your own perceptions.
The book almost feels like you’re watching a play because every character is important and every story told with that character is important – it almost feel likes ‘An Inspector Calls’ by J. B. Priestly for this reason. However, I would say Mia Warren and Mrs Richardson are our main characters, the book tries at first to tell you Pearl and the Richardson kids are, but really most of the story follows these two women and how they impact other people. The book also becomes a story about motherhood and so the two mothers have to be the main characters.
Mia Warren is a fascinating character. She’s the kind of character you want to know more about as time goes on, and whilst we do learn more about her, you’re always wanting to peak behind the curtain and see a little more. She’s at first presented as an almost mad artist but as time moves forward in the novel you learn to she’s wise in a lot of things, and very experienced and she lacks any judgement. However, this is also her hamartia – she’s not able to think critically about what she’s doing, it’s not until Pearls fifteen does she consider what her constant need to travel does to her daughter, and some of the advice she gives Izzy is at times dangerous. Through not only art but also Mrs Richardson’s motives do we begin to see the unpackaging of Mia’s past and it’s a fascinating past at that. It surrounds a lot of discussion that has been focused on surrogacy for a while – how much claim to the child does a surrogate carry? Ng never tells you what she thinks, but it’s clear she’s thought of the issue before from both how Mia comes to care for the baby, Pearl, she carries as her own, but also the ranging reactions to what’s she done from her parents to her artistic mentors. It’s almost as if Ng is trying to explore the divide in critical thinking between art and industrial – she seems to be doing that constantly throughout the book.
Mrs Richardson works as an almost FOIL to Mia Warren, she’s not a perfect FOIL but it very much feels as if that is what Ng was trying to explore in the dynamic between the two women and mothers. Whilst in literature FOILs are traditionally the antagonists to the writer’s protagonist, there are no antagonists in this story – just people, and therefore Mrs Richardson isn’t the antagonist. At first she does feel like one, as a reader you don’t understand her motives and you’re quick to judge her on her actions, however Ng unfolds her backstory just as well as she does with everyone else, and whilst you may not be able to excuse all she’s done you begin to understand her. In comparison to Mia Warren Mrs Richardson possess some critical thinking abilities, it’s why she’s in the job she’s in and why she married the man she did, it’s why she appears to put her children above her own desires at first; but similarly to Mia as the book progresses she also allows her head to rule her heart at times particularly surrounding the case of May Ling and her treatment of Izzy. As the book moves forward we see Mrs Richardson let go of her need for rules and critical thinking and move to allowing her heart rule her, whereas we see Mia Warren move to the realisation her fears and heart can’t rule her completely any longer, and that she needs to live by some form of rules. It’s a very interesting dynamic and merge between two different ways of thinking.
It’s important to note I’m not sure we ever learn Mrs Richardson’s name, and if we do it’s very briefly mentioned and never brought up again. It very much traps the woman in the identity of being a wife and a mother in a restricting family dynamic – she is nothing more than the role of a mother and wife, she doesn’t even have a name and therefore doesn’t have the same freedom Mia Warren possess – who even got to choose her own name. However this is also be because when a woman becomes a mother, she traditionally has to sacrifice a lot more than a father ever has to, and we see this in Mrs Richardson who has no name and has never moved on from her job to bigger roles as her male colleagues have; whereas Mia Warren hasn’t made these sacrifices and whilst she seems more free at first, there is a suggestion at the end of the novel when she tells Pearl the truth she should have also made those sacrifices, because she is no more free than Mrs Richardson when she is being chased by the demons of her past.
The other characters in this are also fantastic, the children in particular all feel very real and distinct from each other. Whilst Ng focuses on the story of two mothers she does also explore themes of sex, relationships, teen pregnancy, and unrequited love through the teenagers, and presents lessons to the reader adults could still learn even past this stage in their life. All their choices are muddled up together and it becomes a web I’m unsure you could untangle – something Pearl herself comments on at the end of the book. Their choices become things they live with and changes their lives irreversibly, and whilst Ng never tells us what’s right or wrong, you begin to understand as a reader this is how life works – we are a sum of the choices we made.
This book is truly character driven and reads like a character study of two different mothers, and the sacrifices that come with motherhood – ones Mrs Richardson chooses to make at the start of the motherhood, and ones Mia Warren begins to understand once Pearl is older she needs to make also. However, the plot doesn’t suffer because of this and it’s still a wonderfully told tale. Each character’s stories are unfolded one by one and Ng masterfully interweaves them together until you see choices binds us to people forever.
I particularly enjoyed the sub plot surrounding the custody battle over May Ling. It made you think as a reader as to what side you’d stand on in the real word, but it also made you consider if there was a correct or incorrect side to stand on. It also brought forth great discussion surrounding heritage and representation we still struggle with in society to this day, and was a great addition to the larger discourse surrounding motherhood in the story.
It’s a book all about decisions and at no point does Ng tell you if those descision were correct or not, they just explain why the character made them. It’s a great read for that reason and you’re not led down a path by the author, you get to choose your own – much like the characters of this book.