In a world where intersectionality is a central part of our view of society, people cannot shy away from their own hybrid identities and their attempts to balance them. Celeste Ng plays with this notion in “Little Fires Everywhere,” her second novel which soared to the top of bestseller lists when it was published in 2017. Characters in Ng’s novel struggle with the concept of identity and how it plays a role in their lives.
Set in the 90s, “Little Fires Everywhere” follows two families living in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a planned community with strict scripts guiding everyday life. When Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl, move into the Richardson’s rental apartment, the two families’ worlds become inexplicably intertwined.
Mia is an artist who is running from a secret past and protecting her daughter from harsh truths. Elena Richardson is a strong-willed matriarch of four children: perfect and popular Lexie, handsome and athletic Trip, sweet and sensitive Moody, and strange and rejected Izzy. Pearl inserts herself into the seemingly perfect and harmonious lives of the Richardsons and finds much more than she bargained for.
At the center of the slow-growing turmoil and secrets between the Warrens and the Richardsons is another complex plot. Just a year before, Mia’s coworker, Bebe Chow, left her baby, May Ling, at a fire station, unable to provide her daughter with the proper care. In present day, Elena attends the first birthday party for little Mirabelle McCullough, a sweet Chinese baby adopted by the McCullough’s, a well-to-do couple friendly with the Richardsons.
When Bebe finds her child and begs for her back, the tight-knit community erupts into conflict. Some residents of Shaker Heights question what it means to be a loving and able parent while others wonder if an affluent white family can properly raise a Chinese child with respect to her culture. Meanwhile, Mrs. Richardson learns startling information which raises questions about Mia and Pearl’s identity, and the Richardson children deal with secrets of their own. At the center of everyone’s struggle is a deep-rooted greed that no resident of Shaker Heights can seem to escape.
Though the cast occasionally seems to be made up of caricatures rather than well-developed characters, Ng succeeds in encouraging readers to look upon their own carefully constructed society and recognize the flaws within it. The residents of Shaker Heights are not afraid to judge those around them, particularly outsiders, yet they are unable to apply that judgement and criticism to their own lives. Ng reminds her readers of the troubles that come from this failure.
Ng’s portrayal of mothers and motherhood in general is also notable. Many of the female characters in the novel have taken on some sort of maternal role with varying levels of struggle and success. Ng forces her reader to consider what it means to take on a maternal identity and the impact this identity can have on one’s life.
In “Little Fires Everywhere,” Ng offers a refreshing perspective of 90s suburban life, infusing it with our own modern cultural crises of identity. The gossip-loving and frenemy-filled community of Shaker Heights acts as a breeding ground for the exciting drama that readers look forward to in a good read. With witty prose and many compelling plots, Ng presents readers with a satisfying, light-hearted novel.