The best book recommendations come not as titles scribbled down during a conversation or links added to an email, but as fully-formed physical objects—delivered at regattas. Almost every time I see my world-champion friend Kim, she passes off a stack of books for my To Be Read (TBR) pile. Over the years I’ve learned that these recommendations often prove better than my own choices—especially the ones in the literary fiction wheelhouse.
Last summer, Kim delivered a stack that stood, neglected, for six months. By the time I finally picked up Little Fires Everywhere, a rare hardback that I’d been eager to read since it came out in 2017, I first thought I’d purchased it myself (probably with my annual Christmas gift certificate from Island Books). It was only when I opened the flyleaf and found Kim’s name (code for “I want this back”) that I realized: this particular recommendation had overlapped exactly with one of the books already on my mental TBR list.
The story is about several families who live in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a planned community laid out in the 1950s whose occupants are expected to play by the rules. At first glance, the Richardsons are the epitome of Shaker Heights; three teenagers, a lawyer-father, and a reporter-mother who also grew up in the neighborhood. Fly-by-night artist Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter represent the opposite end of the lifestyle spectrum; they move into a rental house (belonging to the Richardsons) in search of a little more stability.
As the four kids’ lives become increasingly intertwined, several surprising and secret alliances develop. Into this fertile soil, author Celeste Ng plants an abandoned child who is adopted by another neighborhood family and later reclaimed by her birth mother. All the neighbors takes sides—overlaid with plenty of racial and class overtones and judgment. Sprinkle in a few more historical secrets that are gradually dug up by the mother-reporter, and the result is a page-turner that stirs up our pre-conceived notions about family.
But while our notions are stirred, they aren’t quite shaken. Characters don’t quite deepen enough to break away from stereotype. The artist is flighty; the suburban mother never thinks to question even the pettiest of Shaker Heights rules—like the one that specifies where garbage cans should be kept (out of sight behind the house, even on trash day). I found myself wishing for characters who were a little less predictable, who didn’t just consciously draw outside the expected lines but wrestled with a few internal contradictions as well.
With key points of view covering the range of perspectives, the story neatly unspirals into both recent and distant past—once the first chapter explains both the title and who lit all those little fires. When reviewing a book, I like to quote a particularly noteworthy passage; with this one, nothing stands above the rest. It’s all a steady, artful drumbeat of careful prose, building and layering toward the inevitable climax. Knowing the “who” and “what” up front frees the reader to ponder the “why,” as well as the occasional “why not.”
By covering so many sides of this timely story, Ng has plenty of latitude to delve into the most unanswerable question: what makes the best parent? And how much does the answer vary, depending on the child? Along the way, the author (who grew up in Shaker Heights and Pittsburgh) pokes a little lighthearted disdain at the idea of humans—who come in all sizes, colors, and schedules—conforming to such a carefully pre-planned ideal of a world.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well-written family sagas and stories that make us reconsider our pre-conceived notions about family. I’m guessing Kim recommends it too, since she wants her copy back again. I won’t hand it over until I hear what she thought—which may well be wiser and deeper than what’s collected here.
Thanks for reading. I publish about one review a month and I’m always looking for the next book. Have you read anything you’d recommend? If so, add a comment below explaining why (no spoilers, please) or send me an email. Thanks!