I usually carry too many books with me. When we loaded the car for our annual summer trip to Syracuse, I limited myself. We had less than a week, this year, and I had been reading veeerrryy slowly. And we were going to be camping most the time. Little did I know I would start reading on the road and just wouldn’t stop all week long. My husband and I didn’t even have our nightly Netflix cuddles. We just kept reading.
So a couple of days in, I found myself in a book-less pickle. Then again, not a huge pickle, because my mother-in-law is a fellow bibliophile. In our guest room, there were several books on a bookcase (they’re still moving in), among them, a few that Ma had recently read with her book club. While she did not have a copy of the one that she had recently recommended to me (The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry), she did have a title that I recognized from recent book group conversation: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. I pulled it down off the shelf and read it before we left. (Then another pickle, but that was solved when I just read the Neil Gaiman novel my husband was reading when we switched between driver and passenger.)
Fires was engaging, for sure. I was into the characters. I was into the story. But at the same time, I was conflicted and disappointed. Conflicted because—while I think Ng genuinely tried to write from a neutral standpoint—I felt on the other side of all the author’s opinions. And who isn’t goaded into passion when it comes to un-adoption? (More on the plot in a moment.) Disappointed just because I thought it could have been better. It was… what was it? Slow? Meandering? There was just something about it that lacked the fireworks that it could have had. And so close after reading The Book Thief, the last thing I wanted was to give away the ending at the beginning. Lucky for Fires, there was only so much revealed. The rest becomes a fairly compelling mystery (with what some would call a too-neat solution).
Interjection: It disturbs me when a book or movie is too much like a project I am working on. Fires is pretty darn similar in some ways to a book that I have already published, Benevolent, mixed fairly evenly with my current project, a novel about a mother and her secrets and her kids. I’m pretty sure, however, that what I was noticing was more of a writing style similarity (besides the Midwest setting, similar ages of characters, and identical timeframe), so I’ll have to take it as a good sign that the literary world is praising Ng, and not be frightened of being compared to her incessantly with my breakthrough novel.
Main Thread of Thought: Little Fires Everywhere is a short- to medium-length novel about two families clashing in the 90s. The background is affluent suburbia (Shaker Heights, actually) and the wealthy mother’s need for complete control and neatness-in-life. Into this nuclear family of six walks the new girl to high school as well as her artist mother, a pair of drifters who care very little for the material stuff of life. Friends are made. Lines are drawn. Mess happens. And all of this is threaded round by two cords of storyline: on one, the question of what makes art-mom so secretive and so transient; on the other: wealthy-mom’s infertile friend’s adoption, which goes horribly awry when the birth mother shows up, ready for a fight. Eventually, one does have to do with the other which have to do with the central theme. In that sense, it’s a riveting package, though it could have been a smoother ride.
There is plenty to think about with Fires, but Ng tends to set the reader adrift, as opposed to guide them through the thing. And to be honest, most of the time, I felt that the things we noticed were very trite. Fires is a sort of run through the headlines of the 1990s, without going terribly deep into any one thing, though the focus is obviously on motherhood/adoption with a little race relations thrown in. The topic got me all heated up, but the book itself lacked gravity or even, due to pacing and point of view?, drama. And I had a hard time deciding exactly what I felt about any of these people. (I’m not really one to be contemptuous of people, just because they are typical or out of style.)
Someone—named Adrienne Rich on Goodreads—wrote a review which expresses much of my impressions with this book, better than me. She says, “The nonconformist has always been at war with the suburbs… Still, you really don’t have to dig very deep to realize that things aren’t as black-and-white as they seem. There are all different kinds of people living everywhere, with varying degrees of happiness and fulfillment. All of which is to say, if you’re going to write on this theme now, you should probably have something new to add to the conversation, or at least a unique way of expressing it.” She also says, “What I don’t like is being told who to root for. I don’t like it when authors stack the deck. Just present every character in the fullness of their humanity and let me decide who I’m rooting for. If you’ve done your job properly, I’ll root for who you want me to root for anyway. But if you idealize one extremely flawed character at the expense of everyone else, you’re going to lose me.” (Hopefully I didn’t quote more than a tenth of that review. If you are interested, I’m sure you can find it at Goodreads.) The point is, wealthy white people in the suburbs are not necessarily villains and complicated, unmaterialistic artists are not always heroes. Fires didn’t really end up making sense of the trope or of giving us something new or complicated.
Not that I hated the book. I didn’t. I actually enjoyed it, to some extent. But the reading also felt hollow and the point of the book, forced. Also, as many have pointed out, it’s an unbelievable story, even for a novel. A fun enough ride, though, if you’re at your in-laws bookless or if you just love cliché social issues enough that you don’t mind when characters are weighted in your favor despite reality.
I do not have any quotes for you. I was reading a borrowed copy and therefore did not underline.
There is a movie in the making, which means that hopefully it’ll happen, starring Reese Witherspoon. I would like to see it when and if it is finished.