Author: CelesteNg
Publisher: Penguin Press
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2429-2

"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." 

So begins Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere (which is how the firemen discovered the Richardson house when they arrived) .

Ng herself grew up in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland; it is almost a character in the novel; and because I set one of my novels in Shaker Heights, I picked up Ng's novel and got sucked into the story of Mrs. Richardson (as she is identified almost throughout the book), and her four children, Trip, Lexie, Isabelle, and Moody. Mr. Richardson, a corporate lawyer, exists mainly to provide the family's six-bedroom house, cars for the children who can drive, and other material goods.

The year before the fire, Mia, a photographer and single mother, and her daughter Pearl had moved into a duplex rental that Mrs. Richardson owned. Because Pearl is a student as Shaker Heights High with the Richardson children, and because Mrs. Richardson is both Mia's landlady and a generous soul, she hires Mia to clean her house and the families begin to interact. Among the many pleasures of Little Fires Everywhere are the scenes of contemporary high school life in an upper class mid-western suburb which ring absolutely true to me.

Ng sets up an interesting dilemma at the heart of the novel. Suppose a pregnant, young, Chinese immigrant woman is abandoned by her boyfriend. Desperate and without resources she leaves her newborn at a fire station. The child is rescued and given into the care of an upper middle-class white couple who, unable to have a child of their own, have been frantic to adopt. Almost a year later, the birth mother, now with a job and resources, wants the child back. The white couple have been waiting for the adoption to go through and want to keep the infant. Who should have the baby? Her single mother whose prospects are limited? Or the white couple who can give the baby all the love, opportunities, and material goods she could ever want?

There is another dilemma underlying the novel: Is it better to accept stability and material comfort than to risk an uncertain/unstable life as an artist? Mrs. Richardson has made one decision, Mia the other. And each woman's decision, obviously, affects profoundly the lives and characters of her children. What makes Little Fires Everywhere so special is that Mrs. Richardson and Mia have made their decisions almost without thought—much the way real life works for most of us. Only when our house is burning down do we realize that actions can have unexpected consequences.