Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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Celeste Ng’s second novel opens with a mystery. The Richardson house is burning and everyone seems to think it was started by the family’s troubled youngest daughter, Izzy. If she really is guilty of setting the fire, which originated with a small fire in each family member’s bedroom, why did she do it?

The disaster of the fire is compounded by the fact that Elena Richardson has planned her life to be perfect in every way. She’s a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a real-life planned community that’s also author Ng’s hometown. Elena and her lawyer husband, Bill, have earned all the trappings of success in the late 1990s: a big house, a rental property and a boat docked at the marina. Elena loves the orderliness of her life. “She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them—and believe—she did.” Elena takes her family’s affluence for granted and she has raised her four children to feel entitled. She’s spent her life in a perfectly safe world, but that all changes when newcomer Mia Warren begins to plant the seeds of unrest.

Mia is a free-spirited single mother who attracts both admiration and curiosity. She’s a type seen in other novels, including Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven and Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day. A visual artist who has ignored the rules for most of her life, Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl, have a vagabond lifestyle. They travel from state to state with all their possessions packed into a VW Rabbit, pulling up roots with a moment’s notice. When they arrive in Shaker Heights, Mia thinks she may be able to settle down and give Pearl the permanent home she so dearly wants. She rents half of a duplex from the Richardsons and agrees to do some housekeeping and cooking for them in exchange, setting into motion a chain of events that eventually shatter Elena’s perfect world.
Pearl is befriended at school by Moody Richardson, third of the family’s teenagers. Soon she’s going to Moody’s house every day after school to lounge on the couch and watch Jerry Springer on TV. She gets to know Moody’s older sister, Lexie, pretty, popular and whip smart, as well as his older brother, Trip, an outgoing jock. She finds herself attracted to the brothers in different ways. As the teenagers’ lives become intertwined, a third woman enters the picture and leads Elena and Mia to begin to think of each other as enemies.

Bebe Chow is a Chinese immigrant who has had a hard time making it since arriving in Shaker Heights. She works as a waitress at the town’s least popular Chinese restaurant, where Mia also works part time. She confesses to Mia that she abandoned her infant daughter May Ling at a fire station a few weeks previously because she was unable to work and feed her. She regrets the decision and desperately wants her baby back. Tension escalates when Mia realizes that a childless couple who are friends of the Richardsons are trying to adopt May Ling. Mia gives the information to Bebe and a custody battle ensues, with Bill Richardson representing the white couple. The controversial case brings turmoil to the typically placid Shaker Heights community.
Pearl has adapted to her mother’s way of life for her entire life, but she’s finally made some friends in Shaker Heights and it’s starting to feel like some kind of home. The problem is, her main friends are the Richardson children. Realizing that Mia is helping Bebe unleashes a deep well of anger in Mrs. Richardson. “Mia did whatever she wanted, Mrs. Richardson thought, and what would result? Heartbreak for her oldest friend. Chaos for everyone. You can’t just do what you want, she thought. Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?”

Mrs. Richardson has worked for years as a writer for the local Shaker Heights paper. When she decides to use her investigative skills to uncover Mia’s mysterious past, she’s looking for a way to punish the woman who has become her nemesis. She never gives a second thought to the impact of her actions on Pearl and her own children because she’s oblivious to the secret lives they’re leading right under her nose. Little fires of love and hate have been set that will soon explode in flame.

With a compelling plot and a strong female cast of characters, it’s not surprising that Little Fires Everywhere has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington for a limited streaming series. Witherspoon had a hit with her award-winning HBO series, Big Little Lies, which was adapted from Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel, so fans of this book can look forward to seeing it brought to life. ■