Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere
Ethics, race and the sacrifices of a mother – Celeste Ng’s novel presented more questions than answers, but not in a manner that leaves you hanging.
The love of a mother is universally celebrated, transcending all boundaries of race and language. But how about the sacrifice of being a mother?
The pain and conflict within oneself as one raises a child – those are themes that are much less discussed. In Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, readers are forced to confront the question – what makes a mother?
Set in the idyllic town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where grass is kept to the perfect height of below six inches and houses are painted different shades of tan to “ensure aesthetic harmony” – appearances are everything. The sharp juxtaposition between the perfection of Shaker Heights and the dark secrets that lurk beneath the lives of key characters heightens the tension throughout the novel, making for an exciting read.
As the lives of two women begin to intertwine, secrets are unraveled. I greatly enjoyed the complexity of Elena and Mia’s characters, as these mothers are presented beyond their assumed role of a caretaker.
Instead, the novel explores the sacrifices that each mother has made and how they grapple with them, presenting their flaws and weaknesses, allowing them to be fully human. No character is fully good or bad in this novel, instead each one is fleshed out with their own motivations and intentions. I particularly loved the evolution of characters throughout the novel, especially Lexie’s plotline and how she matures in her understanding towards motherhood.
I also got my fair share of teenage tea-spilling drama as relationships develop between Elena and Mia’s children, and these events create a sharp contrast between the innocence of childhood affairs and the difficulties of adulthood.
One of my favourite aspects of this novel is the nuanced discussion it presents on race and white saviorism. As readers follow the central plotline of May Ling / Mirabelle’s custody court battle, they will find themselves rooting for and sympathising with both sides. Readers are forced to take sides along with the characters, leading to an inward questioning of ethics and principle.
As the relationship between characters begin to develop and evolve, the lines in the novel begin to grey which compelled me to continue reading even further. Beyond issues of race, this novel takes it one step further and questions the ethics of doing a good deed – what does it mean when you do a good deed with the wrong intentions? Do good deeds equal good people?
Little Fires Everywhere presents more questions than answers and this was definitely a read that left me thinking about it days after I put it down. It instilled in me the costs and sacrifices that come with being a mother, making me more appreciative of my own mother at home.
More importantly, it allowed me to understand the nuances of a parent-child relationship and the importance of empathy to build bridges between people who are worlds apart.
(P.S. The Hulu TV adaptation is tried and true! Although flourishes are added to characters, it doesn’t stray too far from events in the book. In fact, it discusses race relations in even deeper detail than the book and it’s a show I’m really enjoying!)
Amanda Chang is an avid reader and runs @squiggly.reads on Instagram. Connect with her here.