March 2020 – Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
“Still waters run deep” is one of those old chestnuts our grandparents were wont to say on occasion. Totally befuddled us when we were younger but, if ever a saying applied to a book, still waters applies to this month’s selection by Zion’s Readers – Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Set in the 1990’s in real life Shaker Heights, Ohio, a small city outside Cleveland, this story illustrates how much there is below the surface of individuals and communities.
The planned community of Shaker Heights was constructed to be picture-perfect on the surface, populated by families who had achieved solid middle class, but there were currents racing around underneath ready to shatter that image. We met the Richardson family: father an attorney, mother a local newspaper columnist, four teenagers rapidly ascending the ladder toward college exodus. The picture-perfect family with teens who only knew what it was like to grow up with no money worries and so figured no one else had them either. Mrs. Richardson firmly believed that making proper decisions led to prosperity and a happy life. She stressed and repeated that to her children so they would know what to do to get ahead, but actual conversation about their concerns and life never happened.
Into this perfect community comes Mia Warren, a single mother and artist, who constantly moved from town to town across the country whenever she finished an art project. Her teenage daughter, Pearl, never knew any other kind of lifestyle until she met Moody Richardson in school and was introduced to his family. Moody was fascinated by Pearl and her experiences, but his younger sister Izzy (short for Izabelle) found in Mia an acceptance of her creativity that contrasted sharply with the criticism of her mother. Unable to broach sensitive teenage topics with Pearl but sensing her need for more stability in life, Mia decides to put down roots in Shaker Heights thereby becoming a catalyst in the way a little rock hitting just the right point on an ice-covered pond can start a crack that lets things bubble to the surface.
Mia rents an apartment from the Richardsons and agrees to do light housework for Mrs. Richardson, who extends the work offer as condescension masquerading as philanthropy. By turns repelled and appalled at the thrift store décor of Pearl’s home, Mrs. Richardson encourages Pearl to spend time with her children, opening Pearl’s eyes to what she had missed with her unsettled existence.
Things seem to be moving along smoothly, but there are deep currents just under the surface. While Pearl considers Moody a good friend, she has a crush on his older brother, Trip, a senior sowing his wild oats before college. Moody’s oldest sister, Lexie, decides to take her relationship with her steady, a young black man, into a more physical realm that ends in pregnancy. And Mrs. Richardson marches steadily on, unknowing, slightly jealous of and threatened by Mia. Concerned with her own vague discontent at never climbing the business ladder, she fails to see how those oh-so-correct choices ensured she would never reach her potential.
Mia’s part-time job at a local Chinese restaurant introduces her to Bebe Chow, a Chinese immigrant who had abandoned her newborn baby on the Shaker Heights Fire Department’s door step. Foster care rapidly placed the baby with childless friends of Mrs. Richardson. When Bebe pursues the return of her daughter with encouragement from Mia, the town polarizes, factions erupt, the judge needs the wisdom of King Solomon, and the reader learns the backstory of Mia’s surrogacy.
This book was an interesting read even with all the characters and complicated plot. The author’s technique of jumping back and forth in time was annoying for linear readers, and at least one of our readers felt the middle of the novel was slow. However, Ms. Ng excelled at giving the reader each character’s viewpoint, which let the readers find the characters sympathetic. Of course, they were all flawed just as we are. But seeing their world through their eyes allowed their motives to be appreciated. The author was spot-on with her portrayal of the pampered, self-absorbed, affluent kids and equally spot-on with the free-spirited Mia. Ms Eng really got the teenage angst, the hormones raging out of control, and the consequences. She was equally proficient at getting inside the heads of the adults.
Interestingly, two of our readers knew women who were paid to be surrogates. One did it to raise money for continuing education; one did it as a profession. While many of our readers could not fathom the emotional distance required to carry a baby as a job, others understood the motivation. It was curious to see all the different parenting/mothering styles in this novel. Our readers felt Mrs. Richardson and Mia were better understood from the perspective of control vs. lack of control. Yet neither could choose when and where to talk to their children or what to say. One could argue that Pearl was better adjusted with her unconventional lifestyle than the Richardson children, and yet she still followed her hormones even with the example of Lexie in front of her.
At times, the novel seemed like a soap opera – this episode reveals Lexie’s pregnancy, this one her abortion, this one Pearl’s fling with Trip. Might this explain why it will shortly be a series on Hulu with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in starring roles? Perhaps a shortcoming of the book was the way the author glossed over legalities like Mia not using her actual name on the birth certificate – she would have had to show ID of some sort in the hospital. Agreeing to be a surrogate with no actual contract, just basically a handshake and doing the turkey baster stuff at home? Not sure we bought that. How were Pearl’s school records forwarded? And the legalities surrounding an abandoned baby were just totally ignored. As one reader pointed out, the child’s natural parents must have their parental rights terminated. There is a waiting period of months before the termination can be started, and there must be no move by the parent to contact the child. Bebe was making every move she could. While adoption can be pursued after termination of rights, almost certainly the courts would look at reunification of the child with the natural parent as the ultimate goal, especially where the natural parent and child are of a different race than the prospective adopting parents. The prospective parents in this novel were absurdly clueless about the importance of heritage. However, when legalities interfere with plot, they are evidently left in the dust.
While there were some Prodigal Son overtones at different times and some abrupt revelations, the waters calmed somewhat. The author did leave us with some questions. How did Bebe get on a plane? Where do all the characters go from here? Of those characters, Izzy resonated the most with our readers – her family’s treatment of her was despicable. She’s probably the one who lost the most when Mia and Pearl left. It appeared that her burning messages might have gotten through to her mother, and the way the story ended implied a possible sequel. We really hope Izzy connects with Mia and channels her little fires into creativity rather than destruction.
Even with the hints of sequel, it was refreshing to read an author who didn’t seem to run out of time to finish a story. Our readers expressed their appreciation with something that may never have happened before in the history of our club – a unanimous vote of one thumb up! We would definitely recommend this book.
Next month, we meet on April 16th (virus circumstances permitting) to discuss Born a Crime by Trevor Noah.