LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, by Celeste Ng. Penguin Press, 338 pp., $27.
After a first book as wildly successful as Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” (2014), an author’s sophomore effort appears like a movie star from a limousine, klieg lights glaring, paparazzi and critics waiting. Knives or bouquets? Which will it be?
While “Everything I Never Told You” focused intensely and single-mindedly on solving the mystery of a teenage death within a context of gender and racial stereotyping, “Little Fires Everywhere” has more pages, more characters and more themes, among them affluence, conformism and their discontents; cross-racial adoption and the rights of biological parents; and what artists have to offer the rest of us. These subjects are addressed by a tale of three families: the Richardsons, the Warrens and the McCulloughs, all of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
We meet the Richardsons first, and they are slammed with a major tragedy in the first sentence. Mrs. Richardson — Elena, but the narrator refers to her as Mrs. Richardson — has a beautiful home in a planned-for-perfection suburban enclave. “The greenness of the lawn, the sharp lines of white mortar between the bricks, the rustle of the maple leaves in the gentle breeze . . . the soft smells of detergent and cooking and grass that mingled in the entryway” — clearly, the Richardsons live in heaven.
But on the morning in question, Mrs. Richardson awakens to the “shrill scream of the smoke detector.” Rushing around, she finds every bedroom “empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there.” It’s no mystery. She and everyone else in town pretty much know who did this — her black sheep, the youngest of the four Richardson children, Izzy.
These are the literal “little fires everywhere” of the title. But this controlling metaphor also describes a larger group of problems, as well as a means of resistance to convention. (The book is dedicated to “those out on their own paths, setting little fires,” presumably not meant to encourage arson.)
After the opening chapter, we flip back a year to meet the second family. The Warrens are a mother-daughter pair who arrive in town and move into the Richardson’s rental property. Mia, a brilliant art photographer, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, are itinerants. They own no more than they can fit in their VW Rabbit and pull up stakes whenever Mia gets the urge. Mia is a complicated and mysterious woman with secrets and losses in her past that will start up another one of those little blazes.
Pearl’s first friend is one of the Richardson children, a boy named Moody, who falls in love at first sight watching her assemble her bed on her new front lawn. To Moody, raised in the most extravagant consumerist style, the Warrens’ makeshift, thrift-store life is like a “magic trick, as miraculous as . . . pulling a steaming pie from a silk top hat.” Similarly, his sister, that iconoclast Izzy, finds her first sympathetic mentor in Mia. But Pearl is no less mesmerized by the Richardson family and their lifestyle, endeavoring to disappear completely into the padded chairs of their TV room. When Mrs. Richardson, who works as a journalist at the local paper, hires Mia as a part-time housekeeper and cook, the enmeshment of the two families is complete.
To drive them apart, enter the third family, the McCulloughs. The Richardsons’ once-childless friends are now celebrating the first birthday of an adopted Asian baby found abandoned at the local fire station. Tiny Mirabelle — a note in the box said May Lin, but they decided to change it — will be the locus of another little fire, and this one really isn’t so little. It’s the kind of thing that would be the central plot line of a Jody Picoult novel — meaning big trouble and a custody battle ahead.
Celeste Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, and has poured her knowledge of the place into the thorough and rather brutal depiction of it here. And she also embodies its spirit in Mrs. Richardson herself. “All her life she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control,” Ng writes. Better to keep that flame “carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
Poor Mrs. Richardson. Avoiding conflagration seems unlikely in a book with this title.