11

Little Fires Everywhere is a marvel

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

When I first read Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, I wasn’t sure that I liked it. But the more I thought about it, the more it affected me, the better I understood it.

When Little Fires Everywhere came out and it started to show up all over my social media feeds, I was feeling left out! So I was thrilled when a copy showed up at my door.

little fires everywhere

In Shaker Heights, a planned community, everything has always been just so. Homes are painted in certain colours to complement their styles, unsightly garbage is collected behind the homes so no one has to see it, and schools are laid out so that children can walk to them without crossing a single street.

Elena Richardson has lived in Shaker Heights for her entire life and embodies it’s spirit. She, her husband, and four children live in a large home, have a housekeeper, and attend the right kinds of functions. When Mia, a free spirited artist, and her daughter, Pearl, rent Elena’s property, no one has any idea how things will end. As Pearl becomes enmeshed in the Richardson family and as the youngest Richardson, Izzy, becomes closer with Mia, all of them are heading for a collision that will rock the foundation of their lives.

And when a Chinese American baby is adopted by the Richardson’s friends after being ‘abandoned’ by her overwhelmed birth mother, everyone picks a side.

You all know that I’ve been struggling with my reading lately. And initially, I didn’t get time for more than a few pages of Little Fires Everywhere. I wasn’t sure that I was going to love this book like everyone else. But then, miracle of miracles, I had an entire day to spend with it. And I finished the whole thing, greedily turning pages, simultaneously racing through them and wanting to slow down and make it last longer.

Celeste Ng is a marvel. How she manages to craft a novel that covers so much, that sees so much humanity in 336 pages, I will never know. It is a portrait of motherhood, of friendships, of the way secrets tug at the fabric of our lives. It is about mothers and daughters, about the way class systems shape our communities, about being an outsider in the kind of community that is held up as a beacon of progress.

Little things about this book bowled me over. The way Elena Richardson is always Mrs Richardson, never Elena. But Mia is always just Mia, despite the fact that they are likely contemporaries. Ng manages to create a sense of distance with just three little letters. The story moves between points of view seamlessly, so that you don’t even notice it’s happening. Each character is given such depth and history in a short amount of time – really, it’s incredible what Ng has managed to capture in this book.

Little Fires Everywhere touches on racism and classism but never in a way that feels heavy handed or over done. Written with the pace of a thriller, this book is a knock out for book club or your more literarily-inclined friends.

I loved this book. I wish I could read it again for the first time.

10

Review: Everything I Never Told You

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve had Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng on my TBR List since it first came out. Everyone that read this book told me that it was devastating and I was prepared to be shattered and sobbing by the time I was finished.

celeste

Lydia, the middle child of James and Marilyn Lee, is dead. We know this from the first line and we spend the rest of the 290 pages trying to find out what happened while her parents and siblings, older brother Nathan, Harvard-bound and younger sister Hannah, ever watchful, try not to fall apart.

We are taken right back to the beginning when James and Marilyn meet. James, a Chinese-American professor trying his very best just to be like everyone else, and Marilyn, a science student, trying her very best to be different from her peers, meet at school and jump into an unlikely courtship that ends up in their marrying, very much against the wishes of Marilyn’s mother. Marilyn gives up school and her dreams of becoming a doctor so that she can stay home and look after their children, first Nathan and later Lydia and Hannah.

Lydia’s death becomes almost secondary as we find out the family secrets and learn that there is always more to the story than you can see at first glance. We don’t really learn who Lydia was until near the end – it’s much more about the perceptions that her family have of her. Her mother thinks that Lydia is a star science student, and her father think she has a bunch of close friends and fits in despite being the only “Oriental” girl in the school. Her brother Nathan is the only one that has any real sense of who she was and he’s loathe to share this knowledge.

What emerges is a tragic portrait of a girl trying to live up to her family’s expectations of her. I was quietly devastated by her family’s inability to see Lydia for who she was. There was no messy sobbing from me but I was kind of haunted by Lydia and frustrated by her parents’ refusal to let Lydia be Lydia.

I was surprised by the literary style of this one. Its paperback packaging is deceptive – it doesn’t look like the kind of heavyweight book that can wreak some serious havoc on your feelings but that’s exactly what it is. If you haven’t already read this and you like books that paint a portrait of a family in distress, with some mystery thrown in for good measure, you’re going to like this one.