Celeste Ng writes about families. In her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, one of her characters, the family’s oldest child Lydia, who is found dead in a lake, takes us on an exploration of the dynamics in her mixed race (white mom “Oriental” dad) family. In her second book, Little Fires Everywhere Ng introduces us to two modern families, one that may look like a classic nuclear family (except for the fact that their house is on fire), and another that looks like anything but. In this second book we focus, in flashback, on Elena Richardson, her husband and their four children (Lexi, Tripp, Moody and Izzy). Elena is a mom who never realized her dream to be a famous journalist, a mom who may think that she limited her future by settling down and putting her family first and her journalistic goals second. But it is quite possible that it is her inability to untie herself geographically from the Shaker Heights neighborhood into which she was born (where the author also was born) that kept her in a position on the local paper instead of in a big city news room. Elena loves Shaker Heights because it is a neighborhood founded on principles of security and stability and community involvement that she finds comforting.
Elena is not a real hands-on mom, but her sort of distracted style seems to suit her first two children, at least until the decisions of puberty begin to challenge their judgment. Her style does not suit her two younger children quite as well, and, in fact, put her at odds with her youngest daughter Izzy, an impulsive and creative child who needs affection and approval, as opposed to the disapproval and dismissal she experiences from her mom. Izzy does not take her mom’s tempers and slights quietly as her brother Moody does; she acts out to make sure she gets attention, even if that attention is mostly negative.
When Mia Warren enters the lives of this geographically planted family she brings with her a whiff of a sort of gypsy existence, and she brings her daughter, Pearl, the fortunate recipient of her seemingly effortless warmth and affection. Elena hires Mia to help in the morning and cook dinners in the evening, and Elena’s children bask in the parental interest exhibited by Mia, while Pearl longs for the geographical stability of the Richardson family. Mia and Pearl have moved too many times, but this time Mia promised Pearl she would stay put. Eventually Elena becomes jealous of the attractions between her children and Mia. She sees a clue in a photograph in a museum, a photo of Mia with a baby and she uses journalistic research techniques, and resources she has not needed for years, to investigate Mia and to expose her secrets. Why does Mia seem to have no roots – a burning question to a woman to whom roots have seemed all important? Is Mia someone who could be a danger to Elena’s children?
We, as readers, also understand that Mia has a secret in her past and that even Pearl does not know what that secret is. We find Mia likeable but we don’t totally trust our judgment which is based on too little information. We don’t think her secret could be anything terribly bad, but we don’t know. Elena Richardson earns our censure for invading Mia’s life and our gratitude because she unlocks the secrets that Mia guards so carefully. Mia also gave up what could have been a successful career for her daughter but until we get the facts we are not sure why. (Can’t tell you.)
There is another story within this story about an Asian immigrant mom, befriended by Mia, who loses her job just after the birth of her baby. Since the father has bowed out of the relationship the mom, Bebe Chow, finds she cannot care for her baby. She leaves her at the local fire station. The baby is subsequently given to a long-time childless couple, friends of Elena Richardson and her husband. When Bebe gets a new job, she tries to get her child back and finds she must fight this affluent and loving couple in court. (Interesting note about Audible, it encourages creative spelling of characters’ names.)
We are asked to think about what makes someone a parent. Is blood stronger than any other bond? Are children ever born to the wrong parents? Should children sometimes get to pick their own parents? We see the supportive relationship that has developed between Mia and Izzy. What happens in this relationship is one event in this book that raises many questions in our minds and hearts, but I would spoil the book for you if I discussed it here. (Moody’s role in the family is another matter that we continue to contemplate after finishing Ng’s book.) I did find that I liked Celeste Ng’s second book, Little Fires Everywhere, better than her first one.