Family Dynamics! The interpersonal relationships within a family create a complex pattern complicated by the cross purposes of each individual as they forge their own pathway towards the fguture. A mother, while she loves her children, has a slightly different connection to each based on their unique personalities. Sometimes there’s one who never seems to get things right and remains an irksome reminder of that illusive impeccable life we all daydream about in our youth. As my own offspring grew, I was amazed at the other parents whose unblemished children never caused them a moments anguish – always behaving appropriately, earning honors at school, scoring the winning run or goal on the sports team. My own children fell far short, although I loved them anyway and urged them to work hard and do their best in every endeavor. I concluded that either my children were subpar, or the other parents were liars (or at the very least in denial). In my experience there are ups and downs in each of our lives, joys and tragedies which pop up on occasion, and it’s the family unit who sticks together that helps us celebrate the highs and get through the low points of our existence. Such is life reflected in the theme of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
Elena Richardson is one of “those” mothers. She created the perfect life in the perfect community with the perfect husband and three perfect children. Unfortunately, she has four offspring. The youngest, Izzy, is a thorn in her side, resisting motherly (smothering) concern, choosing the contrary side of an argument, and just not quite jelling with her siblings. She’s not an evil child, just a soul who marches to the beat of her own drummer which drives a Type A personality like her mother to distraction.
Mrs. Richardson always planned to be a journalist but was not unhappy at her job as a reporter for the local paper which would never win her a Pulitzer but still gave her access to important information and people. Plus when she needed her credentials to do some sleuthing she was not afraid to call in those favors she had easily doled out over the years, assisting others yet keeping a tally for future reference. Things really start happening in her idyllic life once the nomadic Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl become tenants in their rental house. The photographic genius of Mia delights Elena who generously offers the super neat tenant a job as housekeeper/cook in exchange for enough salary to cover the lease agreement. Mia soon becomes a fixture in their home and Pearl develops into a sibling of sorts to the four teens, enjoying the luxuriously lifestyle which is the opposite of the normal hand to mouth existence of her daily world. Izzy latches on to the supportive, common sense manner of Mia, finding in her a comfort which is missing with her own mother. As the plot unfolds, the inner thoughts of each of the characters are revealed clarifying the life altering decisions which affect the outcome of all concerned.
The idea of motherhood is explored through various stories involving mother/child relationships. In a secondary subplot, Mr Bill Richardson, a lawyer, represents Elena’s friends the McCulloughs who are caring for and hopefully adopting an Asian child who was abandoned at the local fire station. The real mother, a coworker of Mia’s, now has a job, albeit for minimum wage, and wants her daughter back. The question remains – “Who will be the better parent?” – the struggling single parent birth mother or the well-to-do loving family who can provide for the baby’s every need? This issue divides the town, leaving even the presiding judge in a quandary about the best verdict.
I felt a connection to this story since Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the 1990s in a suburb outside of Cleveland during the some time period I was raising my own four children in an upscale community outside of Buffalo. Cultural references brought back memories of those days which compensates for the slow start of this novel. The author Celeste Ng has a talent for skillfully interweaving the lives of the secondary characters flawlessly into the narrative enriching the entire plot. However, while this well written book brings up some interesting questions, it also has some disturbing turn of events which leaves the reader in a wistful mood. There is more than enough finger pointing and blame which doesn’t distract from the pit-in-the-stomach feeling when things fall apart as secrets are revealed, tarnishing the golden glow of sublimeness and recognizing the reality that there is no such thing as smooth sailing. While there are promises of a positive outcome for some, the ambiguity of the future for others is disturbing and I’m not sure even the fire department can put out those flames.
Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.