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. (Goodreads)
Another gripping, brilliant read from Celeste Ng. My honest self would favor Everything I Never Told You, her debut novel over this, yet this book still captivated me and kept me engaged throughout the book. I really enjoyed reading this book.
The writing is consistently on point, solid and strong. I loved the calm yet a somber undertone of her writing so much. Although I found the first few pages where Mrs. Richardson’s house is burnt down supposedly by Izzy and where the Richardson siblings are introduced felt a bit info-dumpy and slow, I think that’s because most of the main characters, especially on the Richardson’s side are crammed and introduced within this first few pages. It just took my brain a while to absorb and process all the information and connect who is who and where they were at the time of the ‘Fire’ occurred. Overall, the writing is as captivating as her last book.
The way the story is narrated is also interesting. It’s told in a retrospective way and first we see the consequence that entails the entire story and then we rewind back to the very beginning and slowly moves towards the end.
The progression is overall rather slow and you might find the descriptions of the characters’ backgrounds a bit too much and unnecessarily deep, yet Celeste didn’t forget how to keep their readers engaged. Here and there, she throws in what consequences each character’s particular action would entail; how things would have gone differently hadn’t this one particular character done this/that. In addition to that, each consequence carries a negative connotation; what could be a better ingredient for a story? As a reader, I was kept hooked on the story and literally couldn’t put it down.
We cannot miss the big, engrossing subplot (I wonder if it can be considered ‘subplot’ though) thrown in at around 36% of the book and how it’s beautifully entwined with each character’s stories and emotions. This big subplot serves really well to reveal each characters perspectives and emotions, even how hypocritical they are deep down no matter how genuinely kind they might look at a glance. As this book has various issues such as racism, abortion, surrogate, and motherhood beautifully entwined, it’s really compelling and thought-provoking. Obviously, this book doesn’t offer any answers to those questions; it doesn’t define what is right or what is wrong, but it does uncover and expose the devious side of human nature, so just like some other books that deal with these issues, this book made me THINK and gave me a lot of emotions.
What I liked the most about this book is the way Celeste drew her characters. Just like the previous book, Celeste did an amazing job of depicting her characters deep and in detail. She doesn’t shun revealing their weakness and vulnerability, she doesn’t even hesitate to gouge out the worst of human nature and expose them for us readers to see whether we like it or not. What is amazing about this is how on-point she is. This is what I personally think could be called as a hallmark of her talent; the deep introspective explorations of her characters is what I think that makes this book more compelling and captivating, literally gets her readers glued to the book.
The characters are – it goes without saying – well-fleshed out and realistic. It is quite engaging and intriguing to see how they are all vulnerable and flawed. I personally found Mrs. Richardson’s character design spot-on and brilliant. She is an epitome of hypocrisy and likes to control everything. She even tries to manipulate her best friend by bringing out the scores she has earned, how much she has done to her friend in order to get things done in her desirable way. Her character arc serves really well to carry the story forward. She is literally the driving force of this story.
We cannot forget about Izzy, either. She and Mia, a tenant of the apartment Mrs. Richardson owns, are one of the key characters in this book. Well, I might as well all the characters are the key characters, but I think Izzy’s near-infatuation with Mia and Mia’s mysterious character arc play an integral part of the story and had there not been Izzy’s obsession and determination to unravel the secrets hidden in one particular photo, none of the consequences that’ll be told in the end would have happened.
Reading the book, I perceived each character and their stories are what the title, ‘Little Fires’ insinuates. Izzy, Lexie, Pearl, Mrs, Richardson, Mia and Moody…. Literally all of them. Each and every of them has their own issues and problems even though they are well glossed-over and hard to tell at a glance. But they do leave a trace as they go and then, by a mere stroke of a match, they immediately catch a fire, being set ablaze and turning themselves into a big conflagration that burns down everything in its wake.
The ripple and domino effect depicted in this book is simply captivating and brilliant.
I think Celeste incredibly excels at entwining lots of threads (=subplots) and then untangling them and describing the revelations that could only lead to a debacle of the Richardson’s. I loved how a single, small thing can actually destroy much more than it’s capable of when they come in droves, one after another.
That said though, I was not happy with the ending; I found it as a bit contrived and unrealistic.
Granted, there’s Mia’s enigmatic words, ‘sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over,’ but even with this particular character’s (I won’t divulge the name for fear of a spoiler) fiery, temperamental personal traits, would he/she really put such an idea into action?? I saw it a bit unrealistic and that was the point where my interest withered away a bit.
Then the portraits scene; I thought the scene was a bit drab and boring. Overall, the ending, the last 2 to 3 percent felt a bit lackluster and rushed compared to the rest of the book. It left a lot of unanswered questions hanging in the air – the loose ends left me feeling a bit underwhelmed and my first reaction was ‘huh.’ I wasn’t struck as much as the last book which I found a bit of a letdown.
That said though, apart from the ending, I enjoyed this book immensely. It was really an addictive, glorious read and I’ll definitely pick up her next book. Although the ending was not my liking, this most certainly won’t be my last Celeste Ng.
If you are into such introspective character explorations, I highly recommend picking up this book.
I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars.
Thank you, NetGalley and Penguin Press for granting me an opportunity to read this book in exchange for my unbiased, honest review.
Last but definitely NOT least, my dear friend, Naty@Naty’s Bookshelf, helped me out so much with sorting out my thoughts for this review. We initially intended to make a discussion post on this book, but we both were so passionate and our exchange got way much longer than we had expected lol We eventually decided to post our respective reviews, but thank you, my friend! It’s been so much fun chatting with you about this book. Discussing this book with you helped me immensely to decide on what point I need to focus when writing this review. You definitely deserve credit for all the positive comments that this post gets 🙂