“If they planned every detail, the Shakers had believed, they could create a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world, and the founders of Shaker Heights had thought the same. In advertisements they depicted Shaker Heights in the clouds, looking down upon the grimy city of Cleveland from a mountaintop at the end of a rainbow’s arch. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shakers had lived it so strongly it had seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up there with a propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws. Even the teens of Shaker Heights – whose main exposure to Shakers was singing ‘Simple Gifts’ in music class – could feel that drive for perfection still in the air.”
Celeste Ng’s much anticipated second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere”, embodies Shaker Heights, a somnolent, stolid, and insular town near Cleveland, Ohio where rules and planning are the law of the land.
“Outside in the world, volcanoes erupted, governments rose and collapsed and bartered for hostages, rockets exploded, walls fell. But in Shaker Heights, things were peaceful, and riots and bombs and earthquakes were quiet thumps, muffled by distance. Her house was large; her children safe and happy and well educated. This was, she told herself, the broad strokes of what she had planned out all those years ago.”
There we meet the Richardson family – Shaker Heights native and believer Elena, her almost totally absent husband, and her four over-privileged and insouciant teenaged children.
“Lexie had her golden smile and her easy laugh, Trip had his looks and his dimples: why wouldn’t people like them, why would they ever even ask such a thing? For Izzy, it was even simpler: she didn’t care what people thought of her. But Moody did not possess Lexie’s warmth, Trip’s roguish charm, Izzy’s self-confidence. All he had to offer her, he felt, was what his family had to offer, his family itself, and it was this that led him to say, one afternoon in late July, ‘Come over. You can meet my family.'”
Free spirit, nomadic Mia and her treasured daughter Pearl enter the Richardsons’ world as tenants of a rental property and become increasingly and acutely entangled in their lives. Their otherness and their utter differences in philosophy and life make them both a foil for the Richardsons and simultaneously an aspiration, a temptation, a siren call.
“Little Fires Everywhere” is a story of relationships, of belonging, and of the rules we make and break around us. Ng captures the ache and awe of parenting from three very different perspectives, all of which seem equally true. Her insight is breathtaking and almost intrusive, as though she is somehow broadcasting our innermost fears and foibles.
“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”
Throughout the novel, Ng is playing with the notions of passion and control with astounding power.
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never – could never – set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
This metaphorical language of a controlled burn is so delicious in the context of a story which starts with (and then builds back up to) an angry daughter from a model family burning the family house to the ground.
If I said I just wanted to crawl inside Celeste Ng’s head, to explore the worlds of her imagining and feel the embrace of her lovingly constructed sentences, would that be…weird? Ng had me from the book’s dedication page, and I enjoyed every page to the very last. What a gift to the world of readers and what a gift this writer possesses. May she continue setting little fires everywhere.