Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

★★★★★ (5/5)

One of the most compelling novels I’ve had the honor to read. Absolutely incredible! My eyes were strained from constant reading, but I simply couldn’t tear myself away from this marvel. Sheer brilliance of storytelling is coupled with vivid characters, embossed in the ever-breathing, stringent Shaker Heights – an elitist settlement, founded and grounded upon rules and perfection.

This is a story about blindness and blunt ignorance as well as quietude and awareness of social, moral and personal issues that plague existence. Silent rebellion runs in the characters of Mia, Pearl and Izzy, and loud conformity runs in the veins of Richardson’s and other inhabitants of Shaker Heights.

Profound dilemmas make up the core of this story – shallow urbanity, racism, cosmopolitan ideals, elitism and classism, motherhood, sense of entitlement, nature of binary understanding and social mores. It is in the tackling of such sensitive issues that author Celeste Ng shows remarkable sagacity. We are always shown both sides of the coin. Yet, it is not up to the reader to be a judge for events unfurl on their own, lending insight to human nature.

Can a haunting past ever be reconciled with? And what can be done about buried, unfulfilled, unrequited ambitions? How delicate, unassuming is the line between right and wrong? Are there any absolute answers? How much can a subjective experience be transmuted to objectivity? And how much knowledge is required to enable one to have a complete understanding of human beings and their predicaments? This novel presumes to neither retain nor exude any solutions, as the prose is wonderfully simple and anti-didactic. However, it does invite the reader to ponder over such questions.

Long buried past veers into the present constantly in this story. Secrets long dead are unearthed, revived, recalled and lived through all over again. But to what end? Or is there even an end? The main story often swirls into the lives of side characters, giving more depth to the plot, but always returning to the main plot, homing into the essence of the story.

Empathy and kindness seems to be a gateway to comprehending human existence. To some characters in this story, these values come naturally. In others, it may be evoked by external events or people. In a few, however, such virtues fail to make a mark. Similarly, in the nature vs. nurture debate, the setting of Shaker Heights plays an indispensable role. Although a human creation, the colony takes a life of its own, driving its settlers on a highly-regulated pathway, dictating their lives around intangible rules, propagating hollowness in the garb of perfection and happiness. Mrs. Richardson exemplifies this best as her bitterness is negated by Mia’s organic compassion.

In all its remarkable glory, Little Fires Everywhere is one of the most phenomenal novel I’ve come across. Highly recommended!

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

About Shaker Heights

  • Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house—of renting, instead of owning—and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable.
  • Outside in the world, volcanoes erupted, governments rose and collapsed and bartered for hostages, rockets exploded, walls fell. But in Shaker Heights, things were peaceful, and riots and bombs and earthquakes were quiet thumps, muffled by distance.

On Classism and Opportunity

  • What could be less satisfying than stealing from someone so endowed that they never even noticed what you’d taken?
  • Work! When her mother said it, it reeked of drudgery: waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors. But for the Richardsons, it seemed noble: they did important things.
  • Where did this ease come from? How could they be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in pajamas? When Lexie ordered from a menu, she never said, “Could I have . . . ?” She said, “I’ll have . . .” confidently, as if she had only to say it to make it so.
  • To have such a deep taproot in a single place, to be immersed in it so thoroughly that it had steeped into every fiber of your being: she couldn’t imagine it.
  • Being allowed to do something and knowing how to do it are not the same thing.
  • Didn’t you have the right to know where something came from, so that you knew what malfunctions might be in store? Didn’t she—as this woman’s employer, as well as her landlady—have a right to know the same?
  • A lifetime of practical and comfortable considerations settled atop the spark inside her like a thick, heavy blanket.
  • Getting information out of interviewees, she had learned over the years, was sometimes like walking a large, reluctant cow: you had to turn the cow onto the right path while letting the cow believe it was doing the steering.
  • Each time, faced with this impossible choice, she came to the same conclusion. I would never have let myself get into that situation, she told herself. I would have made better choices along the way.
  • “Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance. We all do things we regret now and then. You just have to carry them with you.”
  • But the truth was—as Mr. Richardson recognized—that an angry Asian man didn’t fit the public’s expectations, and was therefore unnerving. Asian men could be socially inept and incompetent and ridiculous, like a Long Duk Dong, or at best unthreatening and slightly buffoonish, like a Jackie Chan. They were not allowed to be angry and articulate and powerful. And possibly right, Mr. Richardson thought uneasily.

On Rules and Contrarians

  • In fact, the city’s motto was—literally, as Lexie would have said—“Most communities just happen; the best are planned”: the underlying philosophy being that everything could—and should—be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.
  • She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them—and believe—she did.
  • The more impatient the key wielder, the more firmly and insistently the key is jammed into the keyhole, the more tenaciously the toothpick will cling to the innards of the lock, and the longer it will take to extract it even with the right equipment.
  • One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.

On Motherhood

  • To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once.
  • It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
  • She had told Pearl the outline of everything, though they both knew all the details would be a long time in coming. They would trickle out in dribs and drabs, memories surfacing suddenly, prompted by the merest thread, the way memories often do.
  • Every time she did this, she was comforted by how Pearl smelled exactly the same. She smelled, Mia thought suddenly, of home, as if home had never been a place, but had always been this little person whom she’d carried alongside her.
  • She thought, as she would often for many years, of the photograph from that day, with the one golden feather inside it: Was it a portrait of her, or her daughter? Was she the bird trying to batter its way free, or was she the cage?

Brilliant Characterization

  • Moody held his breath, afraid the camera might slip from her hands onto her daughter’s trusting upturned face, that she might tumble over the sill herself and come crashing down into the grass. None of this happened.
  • Mia shared very little in return, but she’d learned over the years that people seldom noticed this, if you were a good listener—which meant you kept the other person talking about herself.
  • In Pauline and Mal’s house, nothing was simple. In her parents’ house, things had been good or bad, right or wrong, useful or wasteful. There had been nothing in between. Here, she found, everything had nuance; everything had an unrevealed side or unexplored depths. Everything was worth looking at more closely.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.
  • The hot plates she carried from the kitchen seared the insides of her forearms with arc-shaped scars.
  • There was a whole stack of casseroles in the fridge, a leaning tower of Pyrex baking dishes crimped in foil. As if no one knew what to do in the face of such tragedy except to make the heaviest, heartiest, most prosaic dish they could, to give the bereaved something solid to hold on to. None of them mentioned, or looked at, Warren’s empty place by the window.
  • The fog mirrored her state of mind so perfectly she felt as if she were walking through her own brain: a haze of formless, pervasive emotion, nothing she could grasp, but full of looming thoughts that appeared from nowhere, startling her, then receded into whiteness again before she was even sure what she had seen.
  • When she looked down, she saw no safety net, only a forest of skyscrapers stabbing upward like needles upon which she would be impaled.
  • If a soul could leave a body, she thought, this is the sound it would make: like the screech of a nail being pulled from old wood.
  • She had felt, finally, as if she could speak without immediately bumping into the hard shell of her sheltered life, as if she suddenly saw that the solid walls penning her in were actually bars, with spaces between them wide enough to slip through.

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