“All her life she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity.” (161)
Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio during the Clinton era of the ‘90s, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng centers on the picture perfect Richardson family who live in a perfectly curated neighbourhood and their new enigmatic tenant, Mia and teen daughter, Pearl.
Mia and Pearl are the exact opposite of the Richardson family – the exact opposite of what Shaker Height’s represents – perfection. Mia is an artist and a single-mother, whereas the Richardsons appear to be the epitome of what upper-middle-class families are to represent in Shaker Heights: Mr. Richardson is a partner at his law firm; Mrs. Richardson is a journalist for the local paper, and their four children, two boys and two girls seem to be the ideal children and students. Although, things are not always as they seem to be, but to Pearl, a girl who has moved every year of her life, finds the Richardsons, and the life they comfortably live, enchanting.
Now mix in another upper-middle-class couple, the McCulloughs, who have been desperately trying to build their own family without any luck of their own, announce that they are adopting a Chinese baby that was abandoned at a fire station. The same baby that Mia’s colleague had given up because, at the time, she was unable to provide for her baby, but now wants her back. A custody battle ensues which drastically divide Mia and Mrs. Richardson. Suspicious of Mia’s motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes obsessed to uncover Mia’s secrets, but at a cost that dispels all three families.
In Little Fires Everywhere themes of family, motherhood and politics are predominant, while silent questions of who is fit to be a mother and have a family resonate throughout the novel: is it wealth, age, or a nuclear family structure? This is a beautifully written book, and a powerful story.