Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

51kgOTJWNXL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng

Shaker Heights, the setting of Celeste Ng’s latest novel, is a neighborhood in Cleveland.  It’s one of those planned neighborhoods in which everything is ordered and uniform, from the style and colors of the houses to lawn maintenance, to the seemingly perfect, successful, high achieving families that occupy them.  The fact that garbage cans are hidden out of sight down hidden driveways and retrieved by special trucks on trash day is symbolic of the perfect appearance that belies the unsavory truths of reality.

Central in the story are the Richardson family, long-time residents of Shaker Heights, and Mia Warren, a single mother, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, newly arrived and renting one-half of a duplex in Shaker Heights from the Richardsons.  The Richardsons embody everything Shaker Heights believes it collectively stands for: progressive values and living by the rules.  Mia’s and Pearl’s arrival upends everything.

Having lived a bohemian existence up to this point, Mia, a photographer whose artistic whims have kept her and her daughter constantly on the move, is finally ready to settle down and give Pearl some permanence.  The four Richardson children quickly absorb Pearl into their family, while also being drawn to Mia – she’s like nobody they’ve ever known.  Mia takes a part-time job cooking and cleaning house for the Richardson family and becomes privy to the family’s chaos hiding just below the veneer of their perfection.

When long-time friends of the Richardsons begin the adoption process of a Chinese infant abandoned at the local fire station, Mia takes steps that sets off a custody battle that divides the seemingly idyllic town, and suddenly the veneer of perfection and progressiveness begins to crumble.  While Elena Richardson (who is always referred to in the novel as Mrs. Richardson, while Mia is always referred to by her first name, a tactic used by the author that underscores class differences as well as establishing which character is more relatable) is consumed by her righteous indignation over the injustice her friend is being subjected to because of the custody dispute, and busy going to great lengths to uncover Mia’s mysterious past, her four teenage children are involved in all kinds of unsavory high drama, to which she is oblivious.

And it all culminates in the opening scene of the book: the Richardson’s beautiful, perfect home engulfed in flames.  The title of the book refers not only to the manner in which the Richardson home was set aflame (the fire department found multiple points of origin, “little fires everywhere”), but the drama, trauma, and imperfection of reality that playing by the rules cannot prevent.

I liked this book a lot, although I found some of it to be a little far-fetched (like, for instance, the fact that when you get right down to it, Mia, this somewhat free-spirited, well-traveled single mother in her mid-thirties, is a virgin; and that when Pearl is asked to give up the friendships she has nurtured in Shaker Heights and the first experience of stability she’s ever had, she puts up very little fight).  In spite of the unlikeliness of some aspects of the story, it’s a fast-paced, engrossing rumination on motherhood, class, race, and the fact that perfection is always an illusion.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

18693763 Everything I Never Told You: A Novel

by Celeste Ng

It is 1977, a spring morning in a small college town in Ohio, and sixteen-year old Lydia does not come downstairs to breakfast.  Her place is set as usual, with her homework laid neatly beside her place setting, with careful tick marks made by her mother, noting corrections Lydia needs to make on her math assignment.  What her family will learn two days later is that Lydia will never come down to breakfast again, nor will she ever do another math assignment.  She is dead – drowned in the nearby lake, and along with her, all of her parents’ hopes and dreams.

Lydia, the middle of three children and the most beloved, was brilliant and planned to be a doctor.  She was poised, popular, smart, and ambitious – everything her parents wanted for her.  Except that it was all a lie.

James, Lydia’s father, a Chinese American born in California and raised in Ohio by immigrant parents, never fit in.  The only Chinese boy in a sea of white faces growing up, he was friendless, embarrassed by his parents, and acutely aware of always being an outsider.

Marilyn, Lydia’s mother, was a blonde, blue-eyed beauty raised by a mother who wanted nothing more for her daughter than to see her married, living in a “matchbox house with a picket fence,” raising children and baking pies straight out of her Betty Crocker cookbook.  Only Marilyn wanted more for herself – she felt suffocated by her mother’s small ambitions for her, by her mother’s small life.  Marilyn wanted to be a doctor – in a time when women becoming doctors was nearly unheard of.

James and Marilyn’s lives come together, and in choosing to make a life together during a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in many parts of the country, they have little understanding of the implications.  The dreams they both harbor are waylaid – until Lydia comes along, and they transfer all of their hopes and ambitions onto her young shoulders.  Lydia, who only wants to make her parents happy, embraces their plans and dreams for her – but slowly, slowly, they weigh her down and erode her sense of self until she self-destructs.

While race is definitely a crucial aspect to this story, it’s almost secondary to the real issues in this tautly written debut novel.  More than anything, forces us to ask the question: is what we want for our children for them, or for us?  This is a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents live vicariously through their children, when the well-intentioned plans and dreams parents have for their children tip the scale between love and destruction.

The only problem I have with the story is that the characters seemed not quite human enough.  Frail and flawed, yes, but I was struck by how restrained the family’s grief was.  There is almost no crying over Lydia’s death – anger and bewilderment, yes, and a determination on each family member’s part to uncover the truth of what happened to Lydia that fateful night – but the lack of actual tears seemed unrealistic.  Aside from that, I have no criticism of this book.  It’s a deftly written page turner that speaks of very relevant issues.