Little Fires Everywhere
Fans of Everything I Never Told You will relish the journey into Celeste Ng’s new novel, Little Fires Everywhere. Shaker Heights, Ohio (where Ng lived during part of her childhood) shapes a fitting backdrop for Ng’s tale about motherhood, family, secrets, coming-of-age and intimacy.
The Richardsons present a glowing portrait of familial perfection. They reside in an impeccable home nested in a desirable community. Mr. Richardson is a respected attorney, and Mrs. Richardson is a local reporter. Their four children seem to have everything they could ever desire, until Mia Warren moves to town with her daughter Pearl. Mia is mysterious, artistic, and unconventional. And when she rents the Richardsons’ spare house nearby, the two families begin to collide and connect in unexpected ways. Pearl is drawn to the stability and convention that radiates from every corner of the Richardsons’ elegantly appointed home. Meanwhile, different members of the Richardson family are drawn to Mia and to Pearl and to the texture of their unconventional aura.
Motherhood, fertility and child rearing are recurring themes. Ng understands that four siblings in the same family may have dissimilar childhoods and experience different modes of parenting. For example, while Mrs. Richardson’s first three pregnancies felt natural and uneventful, her fourth was fraught with horrible morning sickness and spotting. Despite bed rest, Izzy Richardson was born eleven weeks premature and spent weeks in the ICU:
Despite her early start, she displayed a tenacity of will that even the doctors remarked upon. She tugged at her IV; she uprooted her feeding tube. When the nurses came to change her, she kicked her thumb-sized feet and hollered so loudly the babies in nearby incubators woke and joined in. “Nothing wrong with her lungs,” the doctors told the Richardsons, though they warned of a host of other problems that might arise: jaundice, anemia, vision issues, hearing lost. Mental retardation. Heart defects. Seizures. Cerebral palsy… A list of things she would scan Izzy for over the next decade: Did Izzy simply not notice things, or was she going blind? Was she ignoring her mother out of stubbornness or was she going deaf? Was her skin looking a bit yellow?…Everything Mrs. Richardson had put out of mind from the hospital stay – everything she thought she’d forgotten – her body remembered on a cellular level: the rush of anxiety, the fear that permeated her thoughts of Izzy. The microscopic focus on each thing Izzy did, turning it this way and that, scrutinizing it for signs of weakness or disaster.
Izzy clashes with her older siblings, and never quite fits in to the smooth, sleek family mold. When Mrs. Richardson hires Mia as a housekeeper, Izzy is immediately drawn to Mia who organically provides a form of mothering Izzy craves.
The tense undercurrents between Mia and Mrs. Richardson intensify when they find themselves on opposite sides of a bitter custody battle. The McCulloughs — friends of the Richardsons who have struggled with infertility for many years — take in a baby girl who was abandoned at a local fire station. They name her Mirabelle and give her every advantage that money can afford. Her birth name is May Ling, and her birth mother — a colleague of Mia’s – recovers from severe postpartum depression and she wants May Ling to come home. Mr. Richardson becomes the McCulloughs’ attorney, and questions about love, loyalty, motherhood, family and culture are explored as Ng’s bright cast of characters struggle to navigate the complexities of the trial.
As a social worker in private psychotherapy practice, I have worked with young people who, like May Ling, became pregnant before they were financially or emotionally prepared to parent. Based on my experience, certain aspects of this plot do not ring true. I have worked with several therapy clients who choose the route of an open adoption. With open adoption, the birth parents have visitation at the discretion of adoptive parents. Birth parents and are respected as an important part of the child’s life. Clear boundaries acknowledge the fact that the adoptive parents have custody and are the primary caregivers, but the birth parents are permitted to have a relationship with their biological child and to watch them grow up. It has been a privilege to see this arrangement work out well for various families. And so it felt strange to read such a well-written and engaging book about a custody battle where this possibility was never once mentioned or explored.
Nevertheless, Ng tells a gripping tale of love, loss and the magic of motherhood.