By Celeste NG
Reviewed by Devin Sullivan
Creating a diorama-like image of an idyllic suburb in Ohio, Celeste Ng makes readers feel as if they are merely peeking into the roof-less homes of the characters, in a manner of convenience that is reminiscent of rides like Disney World’s Peter Pan. Partially due to the cover image-the bird’s eye view of a town toy set-and partly due to Ng’s writing style, it’s challenging not to picture the characters sitting on plastic furniture and riding bicycles the size of thumbtacks in a Wallace and Gromit-sized town. And it is this depiction of a picture-perfect village that makes the drama and scandals Ng reveals in Little Fires Everywhere all the more stunning.
By jumping from family to family, and from metaphorical fire to fire, Ng not only presents characters on an individual scope but at an interconnected, town level. The characters exist within the village of Shaker Heights, whose slogan, “Most communities just happen; the best are planned,” is taken very seriously. From carefully manicured tree lawns to camouflaging duplexes as single family homes, “…there was a plan for everything.” While Ng spends only a brief amount of time introducing the characters and instead chooses to slowly reveal their personalities through their morally questionable actions, Shaker Heights is described at length at the start of the novel. “Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shakers had lived it so strongly it had seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up there with a propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws.” The Richardsons are at the center of it, serving as the practical royal family of the ever-perfect town. Shepherded by the matriarch, Elena Richardson, are her four very different teenagers Moody, Lexie, Trip and Izzie, and her husband.
But the balance of the Richardsons home (and Shaker Heights) are disrupted when the mother-daughter duo, Mia and Pearl Warren move into the Richardsons’ rental property, and into their lives. Mia and Pearl are ex-transients who previously followed the whim of the artistic and eccentric Mia: “In all her years of itinerant living, Mia had developed one rule: Don’t get attached. To any place, to any apartment, to anything.” So, what was previously a tight and closed pair is disrupted by Pearl, as she contentedly opens herself up to a family that represents everything she’s never gotten to experience before. “They dazzled her, these Richardsons: with their easy confidence, their clear sense of purpose, no matter the time of day.” Pearl quickly grows comfortable and uninhibited at the Richardsons’, joining them on their plush couch every day after school, and begins to transfix more than one of the Richardson boys.
In similar fashion to Celeste Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere starts with a tragedy. It then reverts to months before, only to slowly work through the time and drama that unfurled to reach the cataclysmic event once more at the end of the novel. In Little Fires Everywhere, someone has set fire to the home of the Richardsons, or more accurately, has set small individual fires on the bed of every single Richardson. By back-stepping from dramatic shifts in both the lives of the Richardsons and Warrens, Ng makes the banal moments in the characters’ lives feel ominous and poignant for the rest of the novel, manipulating the readers into feeling like quiet and trusted observers as she does so.