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LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere is the latest novel from Celeste Ng, who wrote the popular Everything I Never Told You (reviewed here) in 2014. Little Fires Everywhere takes place in idyllic Shaker Heights, OH, where Elena Richardson lives with her husband Bill and four kids, Tripp, Lexie, Moody and Izzy. The Richardsons are well off – they have a big house and their kids drive fancy cars, do lots of activities and apply to Ivy League schools.  When the book opens, someone has set fire to the Richardson house, and everyone suspects Izzy. But why?

Izzy’s anger at her mother – building for years – is stoked when Elena leases a small rental house the family owns to a mother and daughter, Mia and Pearl, who move to town with few belongings under a shroud of mystery. Elena is immediately suspicious of Mia, an artist who has lived her life on the move and who embraces none of the traditional trappings that Elena has always sought. Mia and Pearl’s lives become increasingly intertwined with the Richardsons’ when Mia starts cleaning their house and Pearl becomes close with three of the four siblings. Izzy, meanwhile, is drawn to Mia and becomes an apprentice of sorts to her, which drives a wedge even further between her and her mother.

Ng is a good storyteller, letting the connections between the two families slowly grow deeper as the pages turn. There is a side plot involving the adoption of an abandoned Chinese baby by a white family, but while I expected that story to be more central to the novel, it wasn’t. Elena and Mia wind up on opposite sides of the controversy over the adoption, but the real story here is about the relationship between the two families.

Little Fires Everywhere has been very well-received, but I have to admit that I didn’t love it. There were too many neat parallels involving motherhood and pregnancy for the story to remain plausible to me. Elena – a reporter – got access, often too conveniently, to information that she shouldn’t have known, and everything ultimately got resolved too abruptly and dramatically in the end. Some of the characters became more one-dimensional over time, particularly Elena, making them less sympathetic and the story less complex. So while I enjoyed the process of the story unfolding, I found in the end that it lacked substance. I didn’t take away much from the book.

I listened to Little Fires Everywhere on audio. Jennifer Lim’s narration was precise and empathetic, though at times a little too upbeat for the subject matter. But she moved the story along nicely, and the hours went by quickly. I just wished the promise of the story had held up throughout the book.

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng

I’m back.

My latest read was Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It is about the Lees, a family of five living in a small college town Ohio in the 70s. Marilyn and James are an interracial couple – he is Chinese-American and she is white – and they have three kids -Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. When the book opens, fifteen year-old Lydia has disappeared. We learn pretty quickly what happened to her – that’s not the mystery of the book. Instead, the story goes back and forth in time to reconstruct how the Lee family arrived at this crisis point.

The roots of each member’s discontent are deep. James carries the insecurity of being an outsider and is desperate for his children to integrate more successfully. Marilyn, who jettisoned dreams of a medical career when she married James and had kids, projects her stifled ambitions onto her daughter. Nathan is brilliant, but never wins his parents’ respect or attention, and Hannah is completely overlooked. Lydia, meanwhile, is miserable under her parents’ scrutiny, but can’t seem to stand up to them or express who she really is.

Ng teases out the history of the Lee family, building the narrative slowly until they each come into sharp relief just as Lydia disappears. This is a sad book, of course because of the loss of a child, but also because these characters are so needlessly disconnected. The grooves of dysfunction and secrecy have deepened over the years, leading ultimately to a tragedy that could have been prevented with some smoothing and filling in.

I liked Everything I Never Told You, though I was struck a few times that it might have been better as a novella or even a (long) short story. Ng is a lovely writer, and the prose flowed nicely. It was just too long for the story it sustained. Given how few characters there were, and how tight – almost claustrophobic – the setting, it could have been shorter. I got the gist of it long before the end and just wanted to see how it resolved.

I listened to Everything I Never Told You on audio, narrated by Cassandra Campbell. She is not my favorite narrator (I’ve listened to a few of her performances), as she reads slowly and enunciates a bit too much for my taste. But she also read with a great deal of pathos for the characters, which I appreciated. It was a slow, engrossing audio experience that immersed me in the story and got these characters under my skin.

One final thought: the cover. The text on the cover reminds me of the font that eye doctors use to test vision. (“Which is clearer? A or B?”). This seems fitting for this book, as the truth emerged from blur into clarity as time went on, both to the reader and to the Lees themselves.