“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.” -Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere, is set in ~literally~ the perfect town. It was meticulously planned and has been maintained since its inception. When Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, show up with absolute disregard (and disdain even???) for planning and perfection, Shaker Heights is turned on its perfectly coiffed head. With Shaker Heights as the perfect blank slate, we are able to hold motherhood, status, and identity against it to see them for what they truly are.
This has to have been my favorite book that I’ve read this year. Celeste Ng exhibits her ability to develop settings that work so well as both backgrounds and active elements in this story.
Shaker Heights, the first planned community, is a modern day Garden of Eden, created in utter perfection for its residents. Only, the creators of Shaker Heights are more like an apathetic God, unwilling to be involved in whatever the small town may become. It was created, the rules were carefully outlined, and the characters are let loose to do what they will. Present-day Shaker Heights is a Garden of Eden post-original sin, though. Our characters have knowledge of good and evil, which becomes apparent as each character is foiled against Shaker Heights’ perfection.
Mia Warren and Elena Richardson, the novel’s two most present matriarchs are constantly confronted with their differing approaches to motherhood. Elena takes a special interest in Mia’s past, which drudges up Elena’s repressed regrets about choosing the Shaker Heights life raising the perfect family and being a local journalist. The second she dips a toe in the life she could’ve had, she is almost flung full body into a sea of secrets and deception that could ruin Mia Warren’s attempt at the still, domestic life she’s trying to provide for Pearl.
While Mia and Elena are projecting their ideas about motherhood on others, their children seem to be raising each other. Pearl begins to learn the politics of fostering relationships at Shaker Heights High School, spending all of her time with the Richardson children. Meanwhile, Izzy Richardson, the black sheep of her perfect family finds solace in Mia’s company- seeing a sort of kinship that she hasn’t found in Shaker Heights before.
The character and settings in Little Fires Everywhere are so good. SO good in fact that they do most of the heavy lifting. The plot was a little slow for me in places, which seems to be a byproduct of setting a story in a town like Shaker Heights. The book takes a turn when Elena begins digging into Mia’s past life, and Elena’s obsession almost becomes the reader’s obsession. It overtakes the entire story. Pacing issues aside, Little Fires Everywhere asks the hard questions. Is there a right way to be a mother? If you keep running from your past, does it start to disappear in the rear view mirror? Does doing everything right ensure that nothing will go wrong? Can fire ever truly be controlled? Regardless of the question, Celeste Ng shows us that you will uncover little fires everywhere on the way to the answers.