Parents know that rules are necessary. Rules keep order in the chaos of raising children; they provide structure and expectations; they are the yardstick to measure anything from behavior to development. Rules are a guideline to life.
In Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, rules are the foundation of Shaker Heights and its community.
Now imagine a new family arriving in town, one that lives contradictory to the ordered life and balance of the community. This is the premise of this insightful novel about motherhood, family, life choices, and the challenges of rules in the face of what is fair and right.
Little Fires Everywhere starts and ends with a fire – one physical and one emotional, with more little fires in between.
Meet the Richardsons, a typical family in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio (side note: this is a real place!). Mr. and Mrs. Richardson are hard-working parents to four children. The family lives within the rules and expectations of the community; they work hard, live in a big house, have children who are on the path to success, and participate in all the usual activities, clubs, parties, and vacations.
Their only exception is their youngest daughter Izzy, the rebellious and spirited child who yearns to live a more creative and free existence.
Meet the Warrens, the new and atypical family in the community. Mia and Pearl live a nomadic lifestyle, never staying in one town for long and with only enough belongings to fit in their car. As Julie pointed out, this is a difficult way of living for a child; she stated, “I liked Mia, but this was one of her characteristics that just didn’t seem right, like almost abusive to condition your kid to not be able to lay down roots/make friends, etc.” The mother and daughter rent the Richardson’s rental townhouse, and both are swiftly immersed into the Richardson house and family. Mia becomes a part-time housekeeper for the family while continuing to pursue her artwork. Pearl becomes quick friends with all the children but particularly with Moody, the youngest son.
Their lives tangle together in multiple ways — pleasantly, at first. But there is little room for anything but rules in the Richardson household.
These two mothers and families could not be more different. When asked if either Elena Richardson or Mia Warren had anything in common, all our book club could conclude was that both are caring mothers, albeit in different ways. Was either one right or wrong? It is not that simple; each mother makes her own choices and decisions in their lives, with rewards and consequences to either side.
When a mother of an abandoned baby comes forward to claim her child, the families take opposing sides in the legal battle for custody. The Richardsons are friends to the adoptive parents, and Mr. Richardson becomes the family’s lawyer. The birth mother is a friend and coworker to Mia, who was also the informant to the baby’s whereabouts. Each side feels that he or she is right. The custody battle causes everyone to uncover and expose secrets, to challenge their own beliefs, and to take actions that will change everything.
The “little fires” mentioned in the title are started by everyone and everywhere. No one, from the mothers to the children, is without secrets or pain.
Ng eloquently shows the damage of secrets and the difficulties in living life according to the rules. Are rules and order always empirically right? Is there a right or wrong way to live as a parent, child, or person? Perhaps there is a balance to rules and to disorder.
I think that is what we are meant to take away from the novel. The “little fires” in life are meant to bring us to new beginnings and challenges.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is an insightful, often painful novel about mothers, families, rules, and the secrets that can disrupt all of these things. We all enjoyed the novel, and hope you did, too!