Like a House on Fire— No, Wait, There’s Literally a House on Fire!

blue and yellow flame painting
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Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is a gift of a novel by which I mean it is pleasurable, thought provoking, beautifully written, and over all too soon for this reader. Ng’s second novel, set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, (Ng’s hometown) uses this environment well (specifically the fact that it’s one of America’s first planned communities) to give context to its working-class and uppermiddle-class characters at the heart of its themes and conflicts. Although the book jacket description focuses on a wealthy white couple’s custody battle for the daughter of a Chinese immigrant they are trying to adopt, this legal case exemplifies other questions running throughout the narrative about found families and accepting that the way you choose to live your life, with all its necessary compromises, is only one of the many possible ways to live.

I would describe Ng’s literary ancestors as equal parts Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and Barbara Kingsolver. Little Fires Everywhere adeptly portrays the characters within their social environment (à la Austen), whether in the middle-class suburbs, a local high school, or a New York art school. Within these various locales, Ng remains attentive to how class status shades all the characters’ interactions (à la Wharton). Ng writes what often feels like magical realism in which there is no supernatural magic— only the surprises and reversals that even the most ordinary life can contain (à la Kingsolver).

What most impressed me, however, was Ng’s ability to capture the characters’ various, and often conflicting, perspectives, show the limitations of each outlook, and yet still maintain empathy for each of the characters. Ng balances so much in her character work, connecting her to the best of nineteenth-century realism, while she elevates the mundane in a way that feels magical yet modern. Ng directly confronts issues of motherhood which will elicit strong opinions from readers, making Little Fires Everywhere a perfect book to read with a friend, in a book club, in a college classroom, etc. (To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, I will read it in the car. I will read it in a bar.)

What’s more, Ng renders exquisite prose. Her combination of first-rate storytelling and beautiful style is one to be appreciated by readers and envied by fellow writers. Little Fires Everywhere’s pacing is swift. It’s what I think of as a third-arm book that you drag around wherever you go so you can continue reading. (I even stayed up late to finish the book rather than wait for another sunrise to reach the end.) In fact, after devouring the novel during my first reading, I’m eager to savor it again at a more leisurely pace.

While ultimately more hopeful in tone than her strong debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere is equally compelling. If you’ve never read Ng’s work, her novels are a treat for readers. You can’t go wrong with adding either of her novels to your bookshelf.

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