Book: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Narrator: Jennifer Lim
BECHDEL TEST: Pass-Mia and Izzy talk about her music teacher.
Content Warnings: Racism, arson, abortion, alcoholism (mentioned), animal abuse (mentioned), bombs, bullying by a teacher, car crash, death of a sibling, mentions of domestic abuse, drugs, grief, hospital scenes, infertility, kidnapping, miscarriage, postpartum depression, poverty, pregnancy, mentions of rape, sexism, mentions of spiders, stalking, victim blaming, mentions of war
Little Fires Everywhere is one of those rare books where I actually watched the TV adaptation before I read the book, and there definitely seems to be a pattern with these, because I definitely enjoyed the TV mini-series more. Whilst the book certainly brought up some interesting discussions surrounding race and white privilege, the plot was kind of all over the place, and the distant style of narration meant that it always felt like the characters’ were kept at arms length from you, and that you were reading a report of the events rather than a narrative. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town–and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
As I mentioned at the top of the review, one of my biggest issues with the book was the distant, omniscient type narration. I’ll admit that it’s my least favourite type of narration anyway, I like getting in characters heads, so first person really works best for me, though I have enjoyed books with close third person before. All this to say, I like feeling close to the characters, and I found that the distant style of narration at this book kept you at arm’s length from them. It also felt more like reading a report of the events rather than a narrative, like this happened and then this happened, and I just don’t think it was the most interesting way to tell the story? I reckon if it had been in close third person then I probably would have enjoyed it more because I could have had more of an idea of how the characters were feeling.
The plot was also kind of all over the place. There’s both a lot happening and yet very little happening at the same time if that makes any sense? Like the story in general is fairly slow paced, we’re simply following the daily lives of the Richardsons and Mia and Pearl, but then there’s also all this super dramatic stuff like the fire, the big court case, the events in Mia’s backstory etc, that it kind of gives you whiplash! I feel like the author almost had too many ideas and tried to cram them all into one fairly short book, and it just didn’t quite work. There were certain plot points that stretched the realm of credulity, though I can’t go into them without massive spoilers. Honestly I feel like the book needed to be longer (which is not something I say very often!), as the author tries to tackle all of these big and difficult topics and doesn’t do them all the justice they deserve because the book is simply too short to go into a huge amount of depth.
I felt like I was supposed to like Mia a lot more than I actually did? I mean I don’t know if some of that came from having already seen the TV show, so knowing the basic plot already did mean that I already had knowledge of who the characters were and what they did from the TV series. But still, it felt like the book made Mia out to be an angel, and in reality, she was just as flawed as Elena, the way she dragged Pearl across the country her entire life without ever telling her why, cutting her off from her father, running away with her in the first place, she’s not the saint that the narrative leads you to believe, and I feel like the book definitely wants you to think Mia=good & Elena=bad. I think the TV show did a much better job of showing the nuances of both characters, especially Elena who comes across as somewhat of a caricature in the book.
The way the narration keeps you at a distance from the characters meant that they weren’t able to be as fully developed as they otherwise might have been. I feel like I was told a lot about the characters, so I felt like I knew a lot of facts about them, but I never really knew how they felt about the events that were happening to them. I would have liked to get into their heads a bit more. The characters all seemed like stereotypes and not much more: you have Elena-uptight mum, Mia-outsider rebel, Lexie-Queen Bee, Trip-Jock, Moody-serious one, Izzy-Black Sheep & Pearl-good girl daughter who had serious “not like other girls” energy. It felt like there were perhaps a few too many characters to follow and so their development suffered. I also wish that we’d been able to see more of the relationships between the characters, it felt like we just got to see a select few interact properly.
I didn’t love the narrator, I found her accent kind of grating.
The switching between which character was the focus of the story within chapters was a little confusing, I would have preferred if each chapter had just followed one character because then it would have been more straightforward.
I definitely felt like the book made me feel more sympathetic to the McCulloughs than the show did, the show does mention her stillbirth in a flashback but I feel like the book went into more detail about her fertility struggles and that definitely allowed me to understand her a bit more.
The discussion of racism and white privilege was really well done, especially the focus on the “colour-blind” racism of a lot of Shaker’s citizens.
There was definitely too much narration and not enough dialogue for me, granted I am a dialogue person, but you need dialogue to break up big chunks of narration and this book didn’t have that. I also feel like more dialogue would have helped with developing the characters more as you can tell a lot about characters by the way they talk.
The whole message of biological parents being the best/only people to raise their children seemed quite invalidating to adoptive parents and those who are unable to conceive children of their own.
The writing was good, it was engaging and had a good flow, though it could be over descriptive in places: I really didn’t need to know everywhere that Mia and Pearl visited on their first day in Shaker, and to be honest, I didn’t really care for the map of the entire town that we had described to us in the first couple of chapters. She also really hits you over the head with the fire metaphors, like we get it, it’s the title of the book!
The flashbacks of Mia in NYC didn’t quite fit naturally with the rest of the book, though I understand that they were important for understanding how she and Pearl ended up in Shaker, it did feel like we were taking a detour from the main narrative for a few chapters.
The custody case was probably the most important part of the book and it felt like it was super rushed. I didn’t know whose side I would have come down on in the end, obviously Bebe suffered with postpartum depression and was really struggling to take care of her baby and clearly regretted what she had done in abandoning the baby in a desperate moment but the McCulloughs had been parents to the baby for almost a year, and clearly loved her and desperately wanted her, so I don’t know which side I would have come down on, it’s such a complicated case with all the issues surrounding transracial adoption as well, which was touched on, but I wished we could have spent more time on the case and less on things like Pearl and Trip seeing each other secretly.
I really appreciated that this book showed abortion as an acceptable option, and that Lexie wasn’t judged for her choice, but I didn’t love the whole outcome of her using Pearl’s name at the clinic and the way Elena judged her for what she thought was her choice, it kind of undid the positive aspects of the way Lexie’s decision was treated.
I didn’t love how open the ending was, I’ve never been a fan of an open ending for standalones (or series to be honest), and I would have liked more closure.
Overall, I was somewhat disappointed in this book, especially after the TV show was so good. I think this book had the potential to be really great, it had some great ideas and started some really interesting conversations but tried to do too much and ended up not giving all the serious topics it wanted to cover the attention they deserved. The characters weren’t developed enough, the plot was all over the place and the limited third person narrative made it feel more like a report than a story. It was such a shame because I really wanted to enjoy this, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, my final September audiobook. I’ve still got four reviews left to do as I just finished We Were Liars this week, I finish audiobooks a heck of a lot faster than I finish reviews apparently! Still I’m hoping that I will be all caught up on my reviews by the end of the year (which is approaching far sooner than I’d like).