I really don’t think I was prepared for how much I was going to enjoy this book.
I love stories that take place in suburbia, because it’s such an easily relatable setting for so many people who either grew up in the suburbs or find themselves living there. Even though society has grown since the picture perfect image of suburbia that captivated Western civilization around the 1950s, the mindset and subtle conformity still endures today. This setting and these themes are ones that are of particular interest and appeal to me, not only in entertainment that I seek out but also in fiction writing of my own. This might be why I’ve seen every episode of Desperate Housewives at least five times.
Little Fires Everywhere takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990s and follows the Richardson family as a mother and daughter named Mia and Pearl become the latest tenants in a house the family owns. For someone who’s looking for a fast-paced, high-stakes suburban thriller here, I’m going to have to stop you right here, because this book is the 100% complete opposite of that. To someone who prefers fast-paced drama, one might think Little Fires Everywhere is really about nothing at all for at least the first 150 pages. But if you take a closer look – like we have to in most situations, especially in suburbia – it’s about everything that transpires between Mia and Pearl and the Richardsons. As much as they play nice and teenage Pearl makes friends with the Richardson teenagers, the battle lines are drawn very quickly between the social classes of the two families, and draws subtly but quite vividly on themes such as white privilege and how ingrained things like that have become in white middle America. It isn’t until the issue of a white, middle-class American couple in the community wanting to adopt a Chinese baby that the battle lines between the families intensify, with Mia on one side and the Richardsons, for the most part, on the other.
Celeste Ng’s writing style is heavenly, but also wasn’t super easy to read. Again I feel the need to stress that Little Fires Everywhere is not a fast-paced, easy to read suburban thriller. It’s a slow-paced novel of fiction that focuses on American suburbia and middle class ethics that often requires more attention when reading to make sure you pick up on every subtle detail. So Ng’s writing style works well here, because even as it requires more attention from the reader than other books might, it really makes you appreciate the small details that make up a large bulk of the story. It almost reads like a fairy tale at times, with the wife of the Richardson family almost always referred to as Mrs. Richardson, which was a bit strange at first but totally goes with the aesthetic of the writing and the story.
Setting the story in the late 1990s was also a clever move on Ng’s part, as I’d like to believe some of the issues surrounding white Americans adopting foreign children has become a bit more open-minded since then, so setting the story in American suburbia 20 years ago made the issues more prominent. But issues brought about in the story such as white privilege and close-minded ideologies associated with white middle America are still relevant today, so it made Little Fires Everywhere especially interesting to read in today’s context and political climate. But don’t be fooled – as much as the story is a poignant portrait of issues surrounding white middle American suburbia, there is still some soapy elements in the storyline that, by the end, reminded me greatly of Sunday nights in front of the television, listening to Mary Alice Young narrate the lives of the women of Wisteria Lane on Desperate Housewives.
Little Fires Everywhere is an exceptional work of fiction that plays on several themes which anyone who’s ever experienced the conformity of suburbia will enjoy. Highly recommend.
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