A novel by Celeste Ng, published by Penguin Press in 2017.
“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
I was so intrigued by Little Fires Everywhere because it won the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction for 2017 after only being available for three and a half months. Released in mid-September, this title took Goodreads by storm so I tossed it into the voting pool for the book club that I run in my neighborhood. We had an intense discussion about this story because there was so much to unpack. I suspect that Celest Ng will become on of those authors that shines a light on the dark corners of society and then hands us a mirror to look ourselves in the eyes for an introspective gut check.
Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio (the first formally planned neighborhood in the US – according the publisher’s book club guide) where everything is meticulously planned and everyone conforms to the same rules and expectations, the community appears to be functioning like a well-oiled machine. An enigmatic and artistic single mother of a teenage daughter drops into this perfect bubble of life and suddenly everything goes sideways.
Little Fires Everywhere is filled with themes and symbolism, but the two that impacted me most were themes of motherhood and privilege. The cast of characters are both male and female, but the male characters fell into the background regardless of their important purposes in the story. The female characters are in the forefront, and their relationship to motherhood is not in the traditional mother-daughter and daughter-mother trope, but more about the women’s individual relationship with motherhood itself.
Now, y’all know how much I love it when something that isn’t a character becomes a character; in this setting, motherhood becomes a character with a will of her own. We see many types of motherhood, each of the choices surrounding the circumstances present different ethical and moral dilemmas. We see abandonment, adoption (and the custody battle that went with it), miscarriage, surrogacy, abortion, premature births, surprise and planned pregnancies. It’s not all bad, there is also joy, but these could be triggers for some women, so be prepared with box of tissues and a therapist on speed dial. Ng wrote some passages with such depth and beauty that I had to put the book down and have a therapeutic ugly cry (not the cute dainty eye-water, but the ugly cry). Here’s a blurb from Linda McCullough – the one that really got me:
“Each time she told no one, hoping that if she sealed the knowledge tight inside her, it would stay and grow. Nothing changed. By then her old friend Elena had a girl and a boy and was pregnant with a third, and though Elena called often, though she would happily have taken Linda into her arms and let her cry – as they’d done so often for each other growing up, over big things and small – Mrs. McCullough found this was something she could not share. She never told Elena when she was pregnant, so how could she tell the pregnancy had ended? She did not even know where to begin. I lost another one. It happened again. Whenever they had lunch, Mrs. McCullough could not keep herself from staring at Mrs. Richardson’s rounding belly. She felt like a pervert, she so badly wanted to touch it, to stroke it, to caress it.
She began to walk the long way around to the store to avoid the playground, the elementary school, the bus stop. She began to hate pregnant women. She wanted to slap them, to throw things at them, to grab them by the shoulders and bite them.
Finally… That January morning, when the social worker had called to say that she’d gotten their name from one of the adoption agencies, that she had a baby who was theirs if they wanted her: it had felt like a miracle. If they wanted her! All that pain, all that guilt, those seven little ghosts – for Mrs. McCullough never forgot a single one – had, to her amazement, packed themselves into a box and whisked themselves away at the sight of baby Mirabelle: so concrete, so vivid, so inescapably present. Now, at the thought that Mirabelle might be taken away as well, Mrs. McCullough realized that the box and its contents had never disappeared, that they had simply been stored away, waiting for someone to open the lid.”
Now, hold on while I go sob and put my heart back together.
The theme of class and privilege is striking. Mirabelle, the baby that is given to Mrs. McCullough, was abandoned by her Chinese mother Bebe (who named the child May Ling) who found herself in desperate circumstances after giving birth and was also unknowingly suffering from severe postpartum depression. Bebe was abandoned by her boyfriend and lost her job when she became pregnant, thus she could not afford formula or diapers when she was unable to nurse the baby. May Ling became malnourished and developed sever diaper rash, so Bebe felt she had no choice but to abandon her in hopes of her daughter having a better life. Afterwards, she was able to bring herself into better circumstances and become healthy and ultimately wanted her child back. Throughout the custody battle, the question that was implicitly implied was, “how does society weigh a mother’s love against the cost of raising a child?”
It’s not all gloom and doom. There is art and passion and manipulation and human instinct and fire. The fire is the symbol of purification and rebirth. My favorite motto is, “May the fires that burn behind you light your way”, though I do not know who to credit it to. All the characters have their own “rebirth” at some point in the story, and its truly beautiful to watch.
This story is a “thinker” but it is so worth it. It’s incredibly timely and embodies many of the social movements that are occurring present day (even though the book is set in the 1990’s, some struggles are at the core of being human). I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.
The discussion guide is located here. There is an interesting interview with Celeste Ng that sheds some light on the real life Shaker Heights (Ng grew up there).
Also, shout out to Kathryn Cope for your Study Guide for Book Clubs: Little Fires Everywhere for helping me refresh my memory in April after having read the novel in February.
*Note: This post is not sponsored in any way.