Celeste Ng’s fine new novel is a perfect demonstration of mathematics’ chaos theory — the idea that small changes in organized systems lead to large variations in outcome (the butterfly effect). Or maybe it’s Murphy’s law — if something can go wrong, it will.
Either way, we know something goes very wrong right from the first paragraph. And it goes wrong in a town where nothing is ever supposed to go wrong, where order is prized and every contingency planned for with almost mathematical precision.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE opens with Mrs. Richardson standing outside in her bathrobe, watching as flames destroy her family’s six-bedroom home in Shaker Heights, Ohio. A wealthy (and very real) suburb of Cleveland, Shaker Heights was America’s first planned community, established far back in 1912 on land once occupied by the Shakers.
Honoring Shaker belief in order and harmony, the town fathers regulated everything, down to the color of houses and the height of grassy lawns: “by doing so, you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.” It was to be “a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world,” a utopia.
But we all know what happens to utopias. They’re doomed from the start — human fallibility will see to it.
So the novel backtracks to reveal why those “little fires everywhere,” were set on all the beds throughout the Richardson house. Fourteen-year-old Izzy, the youngest of four siblings, set them — everyone knows it — and now she’s taken off. Izzy is an outlier, a sort of misfit in this village of strict conformists. She feels unloved by her mother, who showers her older siblings with affection but lobs her most biting criticism at Izzy.
Disruption to this order comes to town in the form of Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl. Mia (notice that she is referred by her first name, while Mrs. Richardson is always “Mrs.”) rents a house from the Richardsons, and the two, mother and daughter, are embraced by the large family. Izzy, especially, recognizes a “kindred spirit in Mia, “a similar subversive spark she often felt flaring inside her.” Mia, for her part, sees in Izzy a younger version of herself — a creative passion, a barely tamped down anger, and a desire to escape into a larger, freer, more vibrant world.
The Richardsons’ carefully ordered life begins to crumble. All it takes are little fires everywhere — a museum photo, a nasty teacher, an unwanted pregnancy, a baby adoption, and a combustible mix of personalities — just waiting to burn out of control.
Yet in many ways, we’re relieved to see the conflagration because the smug self-righteousness of the Richardsons is suffocating, and their sense of entitlement galling. It is only at the end that Mrs. Richardson begins to realize her own role in what had happened, and she comes to see that once she had carried within herself the same urges as Izzy for freedom and expression. But they were urges she had tamped down and never allowed to surface.
The question we are left with is what if anything can grow from the ashes?
In many ways, Little Fires Everywhere is an old-fashioned book with its nonconformist message hearkening back to the 1960s. The novel serves as a cautionary tale of sorts, warning that our desire for a stable, orderly world risks repressing the human spirit and ignoring life’s inevitable momentum for change.
Ng is a young writer who has already revealed her gifts with her 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You. In this second novel, she continues to astound us with the maturity of her insights, complicated characters, and impressive writing. Highly recommended.
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.