A confession: I have a bit of a soft spot for Jodi Picoult. As frequently melodramatic and contrived as her plots are, as heavy-handed as her symbolism often is, she (usually) crafts addictive novels that play with the reader’s sympathies in interesting ways. Picoult’s characters often read more like collections of symbolic traits than real people, but she relentlessly insists on challenging easy assumptions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters throughout her fiction. At her best (Nineteen Minutes) she is genuinely moving and thought-provoking. Which brings me on to Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, which is blurbed by Picoult (‘I read Little Fires Everywhere in a single, breathless sitting’.) Having read the novel, I wasn’t surprised that she enjoyed it. While Little Fires Everywhere is ostensibly aimed at a very different kind of reader to Picoult’s novels, it actually plays to a very similar audience. Unfortunately, for me, it fixed some of Picoult’s forgiveable weaknesses while failing at the important things that she does best. While Ng is a much better writer than Picoult, she’s actually far more likely to slot her characters into simplistic boxes.
Little Fires Everywhere is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1998, a meticulously planned town that lives for its own rules and regulations, and in which everything and everyone has a correct place. The Richardson family, and especially its matriarch, Mrs Richardson, epitomise the Shaker Heights ethos. Mrs Richardson ‘weighed herself once per week… Each morning she measured exactly one half cup of Cheerios, the serving size indicated on the box, using the flowered plastic measuring cup she’d got from Higbee’s as a new bride. Each evening, at dinner, she allowed herself one glass of wine… Three times weekly she took an aerobics class, checking her watch throughout to be sure her heart rate had exceeded one hundred and twenty beats per minute.’ Mrs Richardson married her college sweetheart and produced four children at the correct intervals, although Izzy, the youngest, remains a source of disappointment and frustration to her. Indeed, the only thing that isn’t quite right in Mrs Richardson’s life is her failed ambition to be a journalist. Into the Richardson family’s world roar Mia and Pearl, a mother and daughter living in a way that Mrs Richardson doesn’t understand at all. Mia, an artist, lives from hand to mouth, has very few possessions, and moves from city to city, making her own rules. Immediately, Mrs Richardson is both threatened and intrigued by Mia, while her four children are also drawn into the orbit of these two strangers.
Little Fires Everywhere also centres on a controversial court case. A white couple are trying to adopt a Chinese-American baby who was found abandoned outside a fire station. Her struggling mother, Bebe, has got her life back together and wants her daughter back. Mrs Richardson unsurprisingly sides with the couple, who are old family friends, while Mia becomes Bebe’s main support. However, the rights and wrongs of the case are so clear-cut that the novel ends up spending little time on it, and discussion about interracial adoption is reduced to a few snipes at the adoptive parents about their ignorance of Chinese culture. We are (as we should be) completely on Bebe’s side, and yet this choice of test case leaves little space for Ng to move beyond simple binaries in the rest of the novel. In short, Mia becomes our moral yardstick; what she does is right; anyone who opposes her is wrong. Mrs Richardson is a straightforward antagonist, who is drawn into increasingly immoral actions as the story continues, and who has repressed and bullied Izzy since the day she was born. The simple moral lines drawn by the novel are mirrored by its straightforward imagery. We learn in the first few pages of the book that Izzy has burnt down the Richardsons’ house. As her older sister, Lexie, puts it: ‘The fireman said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin.’ The book neatly demonstrates during the three hundred pages that follow that, in exactly the same way, the Richardson family have been brought down by the ‘little fires’ set by each of its children. The novel comes together in the reader’s hands like a puzzle with too few pieces.
Little Fires Everywhere kept me turning the pages, but left me with little to think about. There was definite promise here in the questions posed about motherhood – whether it comes down to biological connection, love, or respectful parenting – but the black-and-white characterisation left very little to the imagination. Similarly, Ng starts to write well about race, but the topic is sidelined by the focus on Mia and her journey, rather than on Bebe and her daughter. Like Shaker Heights itself, the book is perfectly constructed and consistently tidy, but at its heart, a little empty.