With a tight cast of characters linked through friendships, family relationships, and broader developments within Shaker Heights, Ohio where the novel is set, with the many meaningful conversations between the characters, as well as with the themes of motherhood, classism, racism, and the diversity of life experiences, Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” is an excellent and emotional read which starts off a little slow, but picks up halfway through to build up towards a memorable conclusion. Photographer Mia Warren – together with her daughter, Pearl Warren – is the enigmatic character who anchors the story, and it is also the details of her past and her actions of the present, influencing the future lives of the characters, which stand out.
It is, at its core, a story of contrasts: Between the affluence and stability of the Richardsons and the relative poverty and the nomadic lifestyle of the Warrens (and whether one choice is better than the other), between the lives and perceptions of their children (who at times wonder what it might have been like, growing up in the other family), and ultimately between Mia and journalist Elena Richardson, who grew up in dissimilar socio-economic circumstances and have contrasting outlooks of how to lead their lives. And even with the court case – the most direct instance of pitting two parties, and those who take their respective sides, against one another (and in fact, the narrative style for the segment is deliberately set up in a back-and-forth – involving Bebe Chow who abandoned her baby but who now wants it back and the McCullough family who has adopted the abandoned baby, Mia and Elena stand by their positions, and Elena moreover uses it too to advance her own agenda.
As a result, their inevitable confrontation is a culmination of these contrasts and differences. And even though the reader – more likely than not – will take Mia’s side, he or she is also forced to confront and to evaluate his or her own life choices.
It is also through the court case – perhaps by design, and perhaps because the characters are oblivious or do not wish to engage on their issues – that many of the aforementioned themes are teased out. Furthermore, given that “Little Fires Everywhere” is set in Shaker Heights, which is described as a safe, structured, and manicured neighbourhood, maybe even to the extent of being contrived or pretentious, the notion of being cloistered or trapped is emphasised. Which is why Ng’s conclusion, without going into detail of what the characters choose to do ties everything up so neatly, instead by empowering the characters with information (especially through Mia’s personalised photographs for the Richardsons) and their own possibilities for the future.