Friday, May 10, 2019

"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

When I mentioned in a recent blog post  that my next read would be my library book club's selection, "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng, a few of you commented that it was a good book, but it contained a lot of "tropes" about motherhood and family-building that might be "triggering."

You were right!

"Little Fires Everywhere" is set in the affluent, picture-perfect, planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, as personified by lifelong resident Elena Richardson, who believes that life rewards you when you play by the rules and do all the right things. And life has rewarded Elena with a big, lovely home, a good job, a successful lawyer for a husband and four beautiful teenaged children (two boys and two girls).

Enter nomadic artist/free spirit Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl.  Over the course of the novel, their lives become intertwined with the Richardsons', with some unexpected consequences for all.

In a number of ways, this book hit just a LITTLE too close to home.  I could relate to the character of Linda McCullough, of course. I will admit to recognizing a bit of myself in Elena (although I hope I'm not QUITE as uptight and controlling!): I always played by the rules, did what was expected of me -- and I was rewarded for it -- until I wasn't. 

Yes, there are some tropes (stereotypes, even) that may be triggering/painful for ALI readers (POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD):  there's a premature/NICU baby; not just one but two desperate infertile couples, one of whom endures multiple pregnancy losses;  a custody battle between adoptive parents and a birth mother; a surrogacy situation;  teenage pregnancy and abortion.

(Beyond the relatable ALI content:  I calculated that Mia Warren is a year younger than me/same age as my sister. The story is set in 1998 -- which was, of course, the year I was wrestling with my own issues surrounding pregnancy and motherhood.  There's even a tan/gold Volkswagen Rabbit -- model year 1981, if I read the book correctly. FIL had a gold 1981 VW Rabbit that he gave to me & dh when we were married. It was our first car, and we drove it until it was totalled in a car accident in spring 1993.)

As someone who's living a much different life than the one I expected -- and certainly one that's different from most of my family members & friends who are parenting -- I could identify with Mia's final words to Elena/Mrs. Richardson:
"It bothers you, doesn’t it?” Mia said suddenly. “I think you can’t imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy car, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose.” Now it was her turn to study Mrs. Richardson, as if the key to understanding her were coded into her face. “It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.” 
(Personally, I think this lack of imagination -- this inability to understand why others might choose a different kind of life, let alone tolerate those different choices -- is at the heart of so many of the problems our world faces today...)

In the reader's guide at the back of the paperback edition, author Ng is asked, "At the heart of the court case is the difficult question of who "deserves" to be a mother. Why did you want to tackle this subject?"  She responded:
I think a lot about these issues because I’m both a mother and a daughter: what motherhood is, what my relationship to it is, what society expects of women who are mothers, or who aren’t. How we’re “supposed” to go about this whole business of motherhood. I have friends who’ve conceived easily, who’ve struggled to conceive, who’ve adopted or gone through invasive IVF procedures or used surrogates, or who’ve decided not to conceive—and the main constant in all of their experiences seems to be judgment. Motherhood seems to be a no-win battle: however you decide to do (or not do) it, someone’s going to be criticizing you. You went to too great lengths trying to conceive. You didn’t go to great enough lengths. You had the baby too young. You should have kept the baby even though you were young. You shouldn’t have waited so long to try and have a baby. You’re a too involved mother. You’re not involved enough because you let your child play on the playground alone. It never ends. 
It strikes me that while all this judgment goes on, the options available to women become fewer and fewer. I’m not even (just) talking about the right to choose—across the U.S., women have less access to birth control, health care, reproductive education, and post-partum support. So we give women less information about their bodies and reproduction, less control over their bodies, and less support during and after pregnancy—and then we criticize them fiercely for whatever they end up doing. This seems not only unfair to me but a recipe for societal disaster. I don’t have answers here, but I wanted to raise questions about what we expect of mothers and who we think “deserves” to be a mother and who doesn’t—and why we think that question is ours to decide.
Yes, there are tropes and triggers and stereotypes. The constant references to fire and sparks are a running thread throughout the book... an apt metaphor, perhaps, but it does wear a bit thin after a while. And it's not entirely clear to me why Mia makes a certain critical decision that she does, in her younger years. It's a decision that seems to come out of the blue.

Despite these reservations, the story -- how all the different characters' lives intertwine and how their actions have consequences they never could have imagined -- is compelling. All of the characters have hidden dimensions -- even the most unlikeable ones have sympathetic moments, and vice versa -- and the writing is wonderful. I was agog at the descriptions of Mia's gifts to the Richardsons, near the end of book. I would love to see the "real" things!

I devoured this book in under 48 hours. It deserved the rave reviews it has received from both readers and critics. I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.

I understand there is a limited edition TV series in the works, starring Reese Witherspoon (this was one of her book club picks) and Kerry Washington (as Elena & Mia, respectively).

This is going to be some book club discussion...!!  (I have to admit I'm a bit apprehensive about it...)

This was book #14 that I have read in 2019 to date, bringing me to 58% of my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 6 (!!) books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)  


  1. Good luck for the bookclub! I hope you feel able to put your point of view, whatever it is.

    I love Ng's response to the question she was asked, about all the judgement. We feel it of course. But I saw it this week, with other mother's (including former infertiles) judging the Sussexes.

    Dammit! This is another one to add to my list. lol

  2. Oh how I would love to attend your book club with you.

    I read the book about a year ago at the suggestion of Are You Kidding Me? (a). I've always meant to do an ALI book discussion about it, but I haven't gotten around to it. I realize with your review that I have totally blocked out several plot points! I'd need to re-read it.

    I agree with you about the lack of imagination (or ability to empathize) is a the heart of many of our problems today.

  3. Great review! I did love this book, even though it had things that made me mad. I did like how there was perspective given to the birth mom in the book that doesn't seem to be given most of the time. A friend recommended this book to me and I had no idea that there would be so much infertility and adoption stuff in it, and was surprised she didn't mention it to me. Thank you for including the author's thoughts on motherhood and judgment, I didn't have that in my copy. Very wise!