Little Fires Everywhere: The Book
If you haven’t read Little Fires Everywhere, or seen the Hulu trailers, Celeste Ng’s book is about Shaker Heights, considered the first planned community in the United States, and two families that encounter each other in the 1990’s. One is a second generation local family, and the other is an artistic mother-daughter duo with hazy backgrounds.
If you haven’t read it yet, and want to, skip down to the reading suggestions and read this later.
I’m not sure what I think about Little Fires Everywhere. I felt that I was supposed to like Mia and Pearl. For the most part, I admire Mia because she isn’t afraid to stick to what is right and accept the consequences of her behavior. I have to admit, however, that I did find the section toward the end, where she leaves the photographs for each member of the Richardson family hard to read. The photographs sounded to me much like Instagram photos: overly staged by an artist far too full of herself.
But as long as you take care of yourself and your responsibilities, my attitude it, you do you. Which is what Mia does.
I don’t understand what is so special about Pearl. She seems pretty self centered to me: she sort of uses Lexie even though she doesn’t really seem to like her, and I’m disgusted that her lust for Trip somehow excuses her from what she does to her friend Moody. Come on, two teenagers doing it in someone’s basement, in secret? Spare me. It’s not some great love affair.
Ng gives us the clue to the whole book through Pearl when she attributes her name from being taken from Pearl in The Scarlet Letter. As I recall, Pearl is a similar character: just not a lot to her for all the doting she gets from her parents. That’s this Pearl too.
While the rest of the plot doesn’t exactly fit The Scarlet Letter, certainly Shaker Heights is a community similar to what the Puritans envisioned for early Massachusetts, and Moira’s behavior as a pregnant woman resembles Hester Prynne’s.
I see some holes in the plot, especially with regard to Bebe’s departure for China at the end. With all the money spent on lawyers, no one bothered to investigate Bebe (and her child’s) rights as Chinese nationals and inform the McCulloghs of the risk? If Bebe was able to leave the US with her child, she must have registered her birth with the Chinese embassy. The fact that no one seemed to consider this aspect of the situation along with the McCulloghs being so smug and so obtuse that they don’t even lock their doors just doesn’t ring true.
It’s also a little annoying that Ng doesn’t mention that the setting of the novel is the 1990’s for more than half of the book. I could figure it out through a few clues, such as the cell phone with the antenna, but I don’t think the lack of clarity contributes to the book, and I think it’s going to age it. I kept thinking it must be more difficult for people who do not remember the 90’s to place too, which must be frustrating. There’s always the possibility that she does it for dramatic effect, but, nah…not working for me. There should have been a year at the beginning.
In the end, I’m left with the biggest sense of disgust for Mrs. Richardson and her belated sense of loss for her daughter, Isabelle that overwhelm my other responses to the book. All I could think was, “Run hard, Izzy. Don’t let yourself get sucked back.” And this, despite the fact that she had just burned her family out of house and home.
Yes, the rational adult in me knows that a person who would do this is severely disturbed and needs help (only because she is a minor…as an adult, she is a criminal). I also know that many bad things happen to teenagers on the road…but that is my emotional response to this situation. I don’t like the mom. At all.
Is that what Ng wants us to think? Is the last scene truly meant to redeem Mrs. R or show us how one dimensional she actually is? I don’t know.
I see this book as being about a pretty good mom who raised an ethically dubious daughter (Mia and Pearl), and an ethically dubious hypocrite who raised 2 ok kids, one really nice one, and Izzy. Izzy the fire starter. What she is, I don’t know, but is it crazy that I kind of like her?
What I keep coming back to is that Ng has written a book that evokes an emotional response but does not stand up to analysis. Which makes me feel there is something cheesy and dishonest about it.
But maybe it’s all for effect: I just don’t know. There is certainly room to argue the other side.
My take away: If you want things to be good, you can’t make them perfect. You can’t shield yourself and think that nothing will affect you. You have to be honest about what you want in life…or at least you will be happier if you are.
Is this the best book for making this statement? ????
Celeste Ng’s point of view as published in The Guardian
The Roots of the Utopian Community in the U.S.
The 19th century transcendentalists had a pretty big interest in Utopias. The folks include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathanial Hawthorne, and the under talented extremist, Bronson Alcott, who only escaped being a footnote to this group through the success of his daughter, Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women.
Mia names her daughter “Pearl” for a character from The Scarlett Letter. Pearl is the child famously created in an adulterous romance between Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale.
It is set in Puritan-era Massachusetts, which was founded as a religious utopian community in the early American colonies.
So you can see this itch to create heaven-on-Earth is pretty well imbedded in the American psyche.
The Blithedale Romance is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s time in a utopian commune called Brook Farm.
Louisa May Alcott wrote Transcendental Wild Oats about her father’s failed commune, Fruitlands.
University level explanation from a peer-reviewed online journal:
Transcendentalism from History.com
Is anyone happy in suburbia?
T.V. and Film
Goes much darker than you expect…and really hones in on racial prejudice.
Look! There’s Reese again!
And the idea that it’s all fake.
The Truman show
Little Fires Everywhere: The Series
After writing this response, I found out that a film of this book, starring Reese Witherspoon, is going to be released on Hulu March 18th. The film features Kerry Washington and Lexi Underwood respectively as Mia and Pearl. It surprised me to see Mia and Pearl played by Black actors, since there is no mention of their being Black in the book.
This omission, if the characters are supposed to be Black, seems strange since daughter Lexie’s boyfriend, Brian, is Black, a fact that is clearly stated. We know because Lexie makes of point of saying he’s Black and also by pointing out that it isn’t a big deal.
Although there are descriptions of Mia and Pearl that could be read that they are Black and could be read that they are White, the best piece of evidence is on page 234, when a photo is described, “Mia nursing Pearl, the fold of her blouse just concealing the pale globe of her breast” (sic).
Also, Ng has been quoted as saying this in the Asia Society blog:
A big part of it, for me, is acknowledging what I don’t know. I’ve grown up in white communities my whole life, and like most people of color in the United States, I have a pretty good understanding of what it’s like to be white in America — so I feel comfortable writing characters who are white. On the other hand, I don’t claim to know what it’s like to be black in America. I can imagine some aspects of it, but I don’t feel I know that experience well enough to write about it. That’s part of why I didn’t write Mia as a black woman, as I mentioned above; I wasn’t sure that was a story I personally could tell. So I try to be honest with myself about what the limits of my knowledge are, and then I try to make sure each of my characters is present as a fully rounded person, rather than as a type.*
The ethnicity doesn’t really matter unless the film makes it matter, and it seems that the trailer is making it a point to say that it does.
When Elena (Reese Witherspoon) asks Mia to clean for her, Mia says, “As the maid?” in such a way that Elena is embarrassed. That line is not in the book. Elena hires Mia on page 69 (hardback), and Mia says, “Mia could see there was no point in protesting, that protesting, in fact, would only make things worse and lead to ill will” (70). And Mia goes on to decide that she is happy to keep an eye on her daughter while she hangs out with the Richardson children anyway.
I’ll be interested to see the mini series when it is released to see how film changes the dynamic between the Warrens (Mia and Pearl) and the Richardsons, but the trailer left a bad taste in my mouth.
*Thank you to the readers at GoodReads; I originally found this quote on a discussion page here.
Peyton Place is a classic bestseller that first “exposed” the underside of picture-perfect American small town life.
If you liked Little Fires Everywhere, you MUST READ this one.
It’s not the greatest work of literature I’ve ever read, but it is one heck of a page turner. It was so popular in the US that it spawned television shows that ran for years.
Yup, Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal were in the television version.
The Real Shaker Heights
The Insanity Defense is a true crime book set in Shaker Heights about a a housewife who killed a nine year old boy. It was written by a law professor
Real Planned Communities
Did you know that Disney started its own town in Florida? You CAN actually live at Disney (almost), if you are one of those people. This book was written about its beginnings. I read it years ago, but it popped into my mind as soon as I started reading Little Fires Everywhere.
It seems that the difference between Hilton Village and Shaker Heights is that Shaker Heights was founded by a private company and Hilton Village, though developed later, was paid for with American taxpayer’s money to provide housing for shipyard employees in Newport News, Virginia.
I just had dinner in one of the restaurants there a couple of weeks ago, and it is still a charming little shopping area.
Horror Fiction…the Classics
The Stepford Wives is such a classic that a certain type of American wife/mother, such as Elena Richardson in Little Fires Everywhere, is sometimes referred to as a “Stepford Wife” or, as a group, “the Stepfords”.
Rosemary’s Baby, also by Ira Levin, follows the same general storyline but with the focus on motherhood/parenting rather than women in general.
I read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time 20+ years ago, but it stayed with me because her her ideas about how to “have it all”…or how to have fulfilling family lives in a way that leaves room for all the adults to have fulfilling professional and personal lives.
You might be appalled by her vision, but some people do some of these things, even now.
This book alternates between utopian and dystopian scenarios.
Cover Photo Credit