The Reading List: Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Book cover showing a painting of a suburban American street viewed from above.

Intriguing novel exploring what it means to be a mother

As usual I’m several years behind everyone else in getting to Little Fires Everywhere. As with Normal People, it was hearing rave reviews of the TV show that got me interested in reading the book. Though I don’t always adhere to it, I do generally follow the rule of reading the book before watching the show/film. I didn’t quite know what to expect going into it, as I’d managed to close my ears to any plot points I’d heard discussed over coffees or lunches. What I found was a book that never lost my attention, and raised some interesting questions.

The novel plays with the idea of who gets to be a mother, and whose love really counts

The book centres on the clash of lives and cultures that occurs when the affluent Richardsons take on new tenants, artist Mia and her daughter Pearl. It commences in medias res, with Mrs Richardson watching the burning remnants of her perfect home smoulder in their picture postcard American suburb. The dual themes of class and motherhood are explored throughout the novel, although the focus is on the latter. The stultifying effect of that typical American dream of the partner, children and house in the suburbs isn’t really examined with much freshness, but provides a contextualising atmosphere for the real meat of the story: what makes a mother? The story of the adoption of a Chinese baby by a white, upper middle class couple, and her mother’s struggle to regain custody, represents the book’s main conflict, and it is through interaction with and participation in this story that the characters’ own lives begin to unravel. Seen through the eyes of the ‘grown-ups’ and their children, the novel plays with the idea of who gets to be a mother, and whose love really counts. At times it feels that Ng sits on the fence in the May Ling/Mirabelle debate, but the story she chooses to tell about Mia and Pearl says otherwise.

It is in dealing with these big questions that Ng is most skillful; she brings grand ideas and clever observations. I felt a little let down by the writing when we finally learn Mia’s backstory; it has something of the Mary-Sue, with Mia’s skills explained in odd ways (can she really have helped her mother at the hospital that much?), and she seems to breeze through difficulty in a way that doesn’t sit well with the complexity of the rest of the novel. That is, until the issue of her child. This feels like a bit of a failing when the characters has otherwise felt so grounded. But ultimately it feels like something Ng isn’t particularly interested in, it is just a way of getting to to where she wants us as readers to be.

Without affection and compassion, motherhood is meaningless

The parallel lives of Bebe and Mia (or rather, Pearl) seem to suggest that it is in the biological mother’s love that Ng finds the answer. But she cleverly counters this conservative assumption with the pairing of Mrs Richardson and Izzy. Despite being her ‘real’ mother, Mrs Richardson (almost exclusively referred to in this way, which subtly conveys the cold formality of her life) doesn’t provide Izzy with the love she needs, so she finds it elsewhere. Without affection and compassion, motherhood is meaningless. Ng defies the potential simplicity of a story about a suburban mother let down by her rebellious daughter through her psychological examination of Mrs Richardson herself, and the complexity of her emotions.

The love between mother and daughter has so much to teach us, about ourselves and the world around us

The mother-daughter relationship has to be one of the most fascinating in human experience. There is so much depth, so much vulnerability. Living in a patriarchal society lends a certain potential tension to all female relationships, and this is only heightened in the mother-daughter one. I would choose a book on this subject over a romantic one any day. The love between mother and daughter, biological or otherwise, has so much more to teach us, about ourselves and the world around us. This is why despite its flaws, I can’t help but love Little Fires Everywhere. Though the other relationships are interesting, and help to flesh out the narrative, the novel is ultimately about three mother-daughter pairings: Mia and Pearl, Mrs Richardson and Izzy, and Bebe and May Ling. Ng uses these three stories to wonderfully and poignantly explore motherhood, in a way that cannot help but be moving.

It is a story that raises more questions than it answers, but therein lies its strength. For surely all parenthood is about questions, not answers; ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ the klaxon call in the mind of anyone charged with raising a child. Ng gets you thinking, and in a way helps us accept that no, we won’t have all the answers, but that shouldn’t stop us asking the questions.

What did you think of Little Fires Everywhere? Any tips for me before I watch the TV show? How do you think it holds up against the book? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please do share them in the comments below!

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