Thursday, September 21, 2017

Book Review: 'Little Fires Everywhere' by Celeste Ng


Massachusetts author Celeste Ng is a Harvard graduate and continued her education with a Master’s degree form the University of Michigan. Though she grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, she now resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she is becoming a highly honored young writer - the Hopwood Award, the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the ALA’s Alex Award. She is an NEA fellow. Her books to date are EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU and LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE.

Celeste not only knows the craft of weaving stories with many varying strands of characters – in the case of this novel she addresses the concept of adoption of mixed race babies – but she also understands architecture: place a foundation of events that will be the result of a story before the story opens and in doing so captures her reader’s attention like a magnet. We sense her background of growing up in Shaker Heights – the locale of this tale – in the manner in which she so intuitively understands where her story will move.

She opens with the following – ‘Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier—a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away—as they could and watched the firefighters unreel their hoses with the grim faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.’

The synopsis explains – ‘In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules. Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community. When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town--and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs. Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.’

The tensions that arise in the placid Shaker Heights astound because of the inordinately well-crafted manner in which Celeste Ng writes. She is becoming a very important American author. Grady Harp, September 17




Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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