The Richardson family is an attractive, middle-class one living in a large, comfortable house in Shaker Heights, a progressive, picture-perfect suburb in Cleveland, Ohio. Mrs Richardson owns a small walk-up in a less affluent section of that suburb and her newest tenants are photographer Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl.
Mia is as unconventional and eccentric as you’d expect any artist to be … or is she? When she moves from town to town, refusing to put down roots and form ties, is it to do with the relentless call of her muse or is Mia running from something? Whatever the case, she tells Pearl that they are staying put this time. Mia understands that her daughter needs the stability that her life has thus far lacked: Pearl is near the end of her time in secondary school and will soon have to think of college entrance exams and applications.
So you have these two families, and, considering what each one is, you know it’s not going to end well. Poor Pearl – what hope does she have faced with the shiny, moneyed beauty of the Richardsons? I was vaguely reminded of Charles Ryder, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, bowled over by Sebastian Flyte and his family in their glittering castle.
For someone like Pearl who has spent more than her fair share of nights sleeping in her mother’s car and who has never stayed anywhere long enough to make friends, the Richardsons and their world are irresistible – gorgeous and glamorous, comfortable and comforting. She has next to no defences against their reckless, heartless, effortless charms.
And the seduction cuts both ways, for the young Richardsons (Trip, Lexie, Moody, and Izzy) are also drawn to the Warrens – to the mystery of Mia’s past, to Pearl’s beauty and innocence, to their strange, practically alien existence – with Mr and Mrs Richardson responding to the single mother and child with self-conscious philanthropy that manifests in an overbearing goodwill.
Ultimately, the families’ various differences, so appealing on the one hand, are also the cause of the collapse of relations between individuals. The differences aren’t just a lure, a refuge and a release, you see. At a deeper level they are about disparities in outlook and values; they highlight the way the same events and actions may have totally dissimilar outcomes depending on one’s social class; they underline the hypocrisy and the thoughtlessness of the privileged and their casual mistreatment of those they, unconsciously or otherwise, deem less important.
The meshing of the lives of the WASP-y Richardsons and bohemian Warrens become sticky with emotional complications when race gets thrown into the mix. Mrs Richardson’s closest friend is adopting a Chinese baby who was, so it appears, abandoned at a fire station. It’s hardly a surprise that the baby’s birth mother and Mia Warren work at the same restaurant, but this plot development feels contrived; a way for the author to force an exploration of white privilege, and pull motherhood, one of the main themes of the novel, into sharper focus.
I am also disappointed by the racial stereotypes enforced by the novel’s Chinese characters. It puzzles me that Ng, an American-Chinese, chose to portray these people and their lives in such a superficial manner. I admit that I didn’t expect her protagonists to be white and it’s unfair of me to expect writers of colour to create only characters of colour, but I am surprised by the shallow predictability of the Asian lives Ng constructed.
Apart from that, I did enjoy Little Fires Everywhere in the sense that it is an easy, smooth read that’s ideal if you’re looking for an appealing, interesting story that doesn’t require much brain power to get through. A good choice for a holiday, but not a keeper.
Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Little, Brown, contemporary fiction