Anyone remember a few weeks ago when I wrote a blog post about how I hate not finishing books, even if I’m not enjoying them? Well, here comes a real-world example of why I am the way I am.
I started reading Little Fires Everywhere when I was away on my honeymoon. I’m a nervous flyer (it’s not the flying that’s the problem, it’s being crammed into a small space surrounded by lots of people and knowing I can’t leave that’s the problem. Not that anyone asked, Ellie, get on with it already.), so I thought starting a new book would be a sound idea to kill time and nerves. And I just couldn’t get into the story. I persevered as much as I could, and I continued the following day while I sat by the pool, drinking an ice-cold beer. But nope. I was bored. I didn’t care for the characters. I wasn’t interested in the plot. And since I was on my honeymoon, I had a fuck-it kind of attitude. I didn’t want to waste so much joyous, free reading time on a book I didn’t like.
But old habits die hard, folks. When I got back home and got back into writer mode and worker mode and being a sensible adult mode, the unfinished book lay heavy on my mind. How could I do that to it? After all my preaching about giving books a fair shot and looking for redeeming features? I was a phoney! I was a wet blanket! I was pathetic! I picked the damn book up again and expected to plod my way through it, trying to make the best of it. And guess what?
I ATE THIS BOOK UP. IT WAS GREAT. I’M SO HAPPY I FINISHED IT.
So, Little Fires Everywhere is about a perfectly perfect American suburb called Shaker Heights, where the perfectly perfect Elena Richardson has lived her entire life. Along comes Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, and they don’t quite fit in. Mia is an artist living on only as much money as she can rustle up from her art and her part-time jobs. She travels around frequently, dragging her daughter with her, but Shaker Heights looks like the kind of place where they might just settle down for good. Elena, however, is suspicious of unconventional Mia, particularly when the pair take opposing stances surrounding a custody battle for a Chinese-American baby who was abandoned by her birth mother and is now in the care of a wealthy, American couple.
At its heart, the story is about motherhood and all of its complexities. It really asks the reader what it means to be a mother and whether a child’s natural mother can offer more than an adoptive mother. And the question isn’t easily answered. Although at times it feels easy to vilify some of the mothers in the story (in fact, you could both love and hate most of the characters in the book depending on what they’re up to at the time) it’s not that simple, and the twists and turns of the plot have you constantly reassessing which characters you want to root for.
The novel also explores the issue of race and culture in the context of a Chinese-American baby being brought up by white American parents. During the custody battle, the adoptive parents are asked how they plan to incorporate Chinese culture into the child’s life in order that she can understand her heritage. They fall short on this count, but you can absolutely see that they love the baby like crazy and will be able to offer her a very stable home and comfortable life. The question is whether the child would be better off with them, or with her birth mother where she will be raised with people who look like her and are directly connected to her heritage, but where her life may be less stable. It’s not an easy question to answer and it forces you to feel the discomfort that everyone involved in the case – and the whole town of Shaker Heights – feels. Ng does an excellent job of posing these moral dilemmas with, seemingly, no clear solution.
In addition to these central themes, Little Fires Everywhere also features a lot of secrets. Most of the main characters have things to hide along the way, and when some of these secrets come out, they cause a whole host of miscommunications and misunderstandings which blow up and break down a series of friendships and relationships. The plot is very tightly woven in this respect; Ng does a brilliant job of juggling a pretty large cast of characters and all of their juicy gossip, without revealing twists too soon or burdening the reader with unnecessary information. It’s not exactly an action-packed read, but it does give you that edge-of-the-seat feeling you might feel with a crime novel or a psychological thriller.
At least, I developed that feeling just after the hundred-page mark. Having reflected on it, I think the reason why I didn’t connect with this book initially is that the opening is a bit slow. We see the Richardson and Warren families get to know one another, which sets the scene and tone, but most of what goes on between them is a bit mundane. Once we got into the nitty-gritty of the story, I was genuinely hooked. It really is a good’un!
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