Blog Tour Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I’m delighted to be helping to close out the UK blog tour for Little Fires Everywhere. Celeste Ng has set an intriguing precedent with her first two novels, 2014’s Everything I Never Told You and this new book, the UK release of which was brought forward by two months after its blockbuster success in the USA. The former opens “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” The latter starts “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.” From the first lines of each novel, then, we know the basics of what happens: Ng doesn’t write mysteries in the generic sense. She doesn’t want us puzzling over whodunit; instead, we need to ask why, examining motivations and the context of family secrets.

Little Fires Everywhere opens in the summer of 1997 in the seemingly idyllic planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio: “in their beautiful, perfectly ordered city, […] everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what mess lay within.” That strict atmosphere will take some getting used to for single mother Mia Warren, a bohemian artist who has just moved into town with her fifteen-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’ve been nomads for Pearl’s whole life, but Mia promises that they’ll settle down in Shaker Heights for a while.

Mia and Pearl rent a duplex owned by Elena Richardson, a third-generation Shaker resident, local reporter and do-gooder, and mother of four stair-step teens. Pearl is fascinated by the Richardson kids, quickly developing an admiration of confident Lexie, a crush on handsome Trip, and a jokey friendship with Moody. Izzy, the youngest, is a wild card, but in her turn becomes enraptured with Mia and offers to be her photography assistant. Mia can’t make a living just from her art, so takes the occasional shift in a Chinese restaurant and also starts cleaning the Richardsons’ palatial home in exchange for the monthly rent.

The novel’s central conflict involves a thorny custody case: Mia’s colleague at the restaurant, Bebe Chow, was in desperate straits and abandoned her infant daughter, May Ling, at a fire station in the dead of winter. The baby was placed with the Richardsons’ dear friends and neighbors, the McCulloughs, who yearn for a child and have suffered multiple miscarriages. Now Bebe has gotten her life together and wants her daughter back. Who wouldn’t want a child to grow up in the comfort of Shaker Heights? But who would take a child away from its mother and ethnic identity? The whole community takes sides, and the ideological division is particularly clear between Mia and Mrs. Richardson (as she’s generally known here).

For all that Shaker Heights claims to be colorblind, race and class issues have been hiding under the surface and quickly come to the forefront. Mrs. Richardson’s journalistic snooping and Mia’s warm words – she seems to have a real knack for seeing into people’s hearts – are the two driving forces behind the plot, as various characters decide to take matters into their own hands and make their own vision of right and wrong a reality. Fire is a potent, recurring symbol of passion and protest: “Did you have to burn down the old to make way for the new?” Whether they follow the rules or rebel, every character in this novel is well-rounded and believable: Ng presents no clear villains and no easy answers.

The U.S. cover

There are perhaps a few too many coincidences, and a few metaphors I didn’t love, but I was impressed at how multi-layered this story is; it’s not the simple ethical fable it might at first appear. There are so many different shards in its mosaic of motherhood: infertility, adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing, pride. “It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” Ng asks. I also loved the late-1990s setting. It’s a time period you don’t often encounter in contemporary fiction, and Ng brings to life the ambiance of my high school years in a way I found convincing: the Clinton controversy, Titanic, the radio hits playing at parties, and so on.

Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through. This may particularly appeal to readers of Curtis Sittenfeld, Pamela Erens and Lauren Groff, but I’d recommend it to any literary fiction reader. One of the best novels of the year.

My rating:

Little Fires Everywhere was published by Little, Brown UK on November 9th. My thanks to Grace Vincent for the review copy.

15 responses

  1. This does sound excellent and very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Both of her novels are well worth reading but I liked this one that little bit more.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking forward to this one. I enjoyed the quietly gripping Everything I Never Told You but this sounds even better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you know her work. She’s a great person to follow on Twitter too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks – I’ll check that out.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As a Northeast Ohio native, I can’t believe I haven’t read anything by Celeste Ng yet. Looks like this book is a good place to start!


    1. Definitely! She’s from Shaker Heights and (according to another blog friend who knows that area) captures it really well. Have you read any Curtis Sittenfeld?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It took me a while to get to this latest novel by Celeste Ng, and I’m glad you recommended it. I did enjoy it–very fast-paced for a literary read–though I found the characters a bit flat. I too thought Ng did a wonderful job with the setting–yes, like being back in high school again, such fun. Now to check out Curtis Sittenfeld!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Everyone’s been raving about this and I still haven’t read it even though I have a copy on my shelf. I need to make time for it!


    1. It’s SO good. But I know how that goes: a few weeks ago I made myself a list of all the 2017 books I still really wanted to get to before the end of the year…and there were about 22 titles on it, which was completely unrealistic given the other projects I’ve got going on. So I just need to prioritize a few of the ones everyone else is naming among the best of the year, like Sing, Unburied, Sing and Her Body and Other Parties.


  5. I loved her first book, so I’ll definitely be reading this one too sometime. It’s good to know you liked it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It will surely be appearing on my Best of 2017 list. The question is just in which position 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng: A multi-layered story about many facets of motherhood: adoption, surrogacy, pregnancy, abortion; estrangement, irritation, longing and pride. Each and every character earns our sympathy here – a real triumph of characterization, housed in a tightly plotted and beautifully written novel you’ll race through. […]


  7. […] fans of Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal […]


  8. I’m not sure there’s a lot of literary heft here, but it sure was a pleasant and highly engaging read.


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