Little Fires Everywhere, the latest by acclaimed author Celeste Ng, begins and ends with its most unlikable character, the prosperous matriarch Mrs. Elena Richardson, and a house on fire. In both scenes, Elena Richardson contemplates and seethes over her youngest daughter, Izzy, who is responsible for their charred remains of their family of six’s McMansion.
Can you blame Izzy, though?
The whole time while reading Little Fires Everywhere, I was waiting for the house to go up in flames for various reasons — payback for Mrs. Richardson’s intruding, controlling ways; a slap in the face to the rich denizens of Shaker Heights who think that they can have it all just because they can afford it; a shout of glee for those children who have parents but aren’t quite parented — and the burning finally occurs in the penultimate chapter. The problems lie in what happens between that key conflagration which bookends the text.
The plot of the novel, where the affluent Richardson family rents a nearby house to mysterious single mother and artist Mia and her daughter Pearl, both of whom become entwined with the rich Richardsons, inches along well enough, though the inciting incident does not arrive until the halfway mark, much too late to build as much suspense as Ng hopes from an important reveal about the semi-starving artist Mia.
The book’s failings include a repeated tendency to introduce, then back up, for the sake of many characters’ histories, rather than occasionally elaborating from the start. Ng also describes for pages what should only take a few paragraphs. (The subplot of a neighbor who struggles with repeated attempts to have a child takes many pages within a chapter. In keener hands, a more succinct version would’ve had a bigger impact.) Often motives for each character, such as pitiful mother Bebe who fights for a return of her own baby and the McCollughs who have struggled to have their own, pop up as an afterthought.
The plot is well done and complex in a way that keeps you hooked, blending themes of mother-and-daughter relations, class struggles, ownership, family, and both social hierarchies and social mores. Other than the pacing and characters’ history problems, the writing deftly hearkens simultaneously to biblical tales and The Scarlet Letter without being beholden to those influences. It’s very well done as a written piece, but perhaps it’s all too much. Granted, it’s more of a character study, but the plot wants the novel to also have thrills, which are missing at this pace.
As an interesting note, the book did get a straight-to-series order from Hulu and will star Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Little Fires Everywhere has a lot of potential as an on-screen drama. The parsing of information in its book form, however, hinders a good story from being a truly great work.