• Saturday, April 01st, 2023

Celeste Ng was born in 1980 to Chinese immigrant parents from Hong Kong who migrated to the U.S.A. in the nineteen sixties. Her father was a physicist and her mother a chemist. Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Shaker Heights, Ohio.

She graduated from high school in 1998, followed by English studies at Harvard University and graduation in 2002. She also obtained a Master Of Fine Arts degree in 2006 from the University Of Michigan, where she enrolled in a Creative Writing program. She presently lives with her husband and their son in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Little Fires Everywhere, Ng’s second novel, was published in 2017. It was ranked the best book of the year by over twenty-five publications. It also won awards, was translated into several languages and became an American drama streaming television series in 2020.

The story novel is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where the author grew up. It starts in 1998 in an affluent suburb of the Midwest where the Richardson’s house is burning in a big blaze. Following this event, the story goes back in time, concentrating on two families: the wealthy Richardson family, father, mother and four children and the nomad Warrens, a single mother and daughter. Both entities are acquainted for a short time, soon to be separated.

A year earlier, in 1997, Elena Richardson, who works for the local Sun Express newspaper and who has been married for nearly twenty years to the notable lawyer Bill Richardson, rents her house to two newcomers, a mysterious freelance artist and single mother, Mia Warren, and her teenage daughter, Pearl.

Pearl is a newcomer who attends the same local school as the Richardson’s four teenage children, Lexie, Trip, Moody and Izzy. They become friends and Pearl enjoys spending time in their house and sharing their comfortable life, taking solace by spending time among a stable, settled, comfortable, traditional family.

The mothers, Elena and Mia, have very different characters; Elena is a Shaker Heights third-generation resident. She is conservative, ambitious, and attached to her comfortable life. In contrast, Mia is a free thinker who leads a short-term life wherever she goes and scrapes for a living inflicting an unsettled lifestyle on her young daughter.

Little Fires Everywhere is a powerful story touching several pertinent themes – a single mother’s problems, responsibilities and hardships. Mia’s concealment of Pearl’s father’s identity illustrates the burden and torment of hiding a secret from the past. There is the solid, innate motherly feeling related to adoption, with Mia as a carrier mother, combined with the sub-story of the Chinese Bebe Chow, who works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant and wants the return of her baby, which she abandoned earlier and was adopted by the McCulloughs couple. Moreover, the author includes the race element (Chinese vs American) mentioned in a court case over the suitable parentage for the child.

The novel also tackles the adolescent crisis with Lexie’s concealed pregnancy and secret abortion and Izzy’s alienation, loneliness and rebellion against the established ways and their opposites. Furthermore, the novel touches on classes in society, identity and an artist’s troubled, struggling life.

All these topics and their simmering fire under the outer crust of an established society were bound to explode and be destroyed for things to potentially start anew, like the mythical bird, the phoenix rising from the ashes as a new rebirth. Mia tells Izzy: “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way”. The rebellious, confused Izzy, the family’s black sheep, took Mia at her word and burned her parent’s house. All these themes are woven together effortlessly in this thought-provoking, compelling, sad story with well-depicted, realistic characters.

The ending is left open to the reader, with Elena searching for her fifteen-year-old daughter, Izzy, who left home and whether she will ever find her. To reassure herself, Elena says at the end of the book that if the police cannot find Izzy,“She would look for Izzy herself. For as long as it takes, for forever if need be … she would spend months, years, the rest of her life looking for her daughter”.

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Category: Book Reviews
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