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.