An engrossing tale of community and motherhood that devastated and healed my little Clevelander heart. Five stars for this subtle, dangerous little book.
book cover: little fires everywhere

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”

“In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s. 

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.”

This book frustrated me at every turn–in the best way possible. Every time I had settled into despising a character, Ng unveiled another layer of complexity in their story that wrenched more empathy from my greedy little fingers. Every time I got comfortable with a recognizable conflict, Ng brought something else into the mix.

“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.” 

At first glance, Little Fires Everywhere might seem like a predictable “rebellion against suburban conformity” story, but that’d be selling it way short.

For one thing, Shaker Heights is more than just a cookie-cutter 50s-style suburb. This was extra delicious for me to read because I live in the Cleveland area. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Shaker Heights, where several friends lived in high school and another works now, and it’s a strange town.

I’ve never read a proper published novel set someplace so close to home for me (unlike NY and LA, Cleveland doesn’t get dozens of fictional works every year exploring its every foible and wonder) and it was so fun to see references to places I’d been and things I’d experienced. It reminded me of a time (I was ten or eleven, maybe) when my mother, driving me through the winding web of Shaker roads, explained to me that the place was deliberately designed with that nonsensical layout because it was extra scenic and, more importantly, was deterringly confusing for outsiders.

But that was just a bonus for me. I think this would be an immersive, interesting (and often amusing) setting even for a reader who’d never seen Shaker. The environment is key to the entire novel. Ng takes her time laying the groundwork, painting a detailed picture of life in Shaker in the 90s, a place with distinct, strongly-held values that allow for little deviation.

Because the setting is so vivid, when Ng moves the pieces into place (characters at odds and a custody case that divides the town), the story jumps to life immediately. For such a quiet, character-driven book, I wasn’t expecting the story to feel like a runaway train, but as the characters careened towards the conclusion, that was what it felt like.

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia…

It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”

In the end, the story was simple and compassionate and tender. It felt, I suppose, inevitable. So, so real.

I picked up a copy of the (teeny-tiny!) Everything I Never Told You, Ng’s debut, but I can’t imaging it being better than this. Little Fires Everywhere really seems like the book of Ng’s heart, pulling directly from her own childhood as an Asian-American growing up outside Cleveland.

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