Shaker Heights in Ohio is a place where everything is planned, organised and controlled. Nothing is left to chance; not the the colour of the doors into each house or where household rubbish must be left for collection.
Across the country, other communities might clash and squabble but Shaker Heights prides itself on being a community that is “unified and beautiful”: where householders regularly weed their gardens and parents engage in wholesome activities like making cookies.
It’s a picture perfect settlement operating on an underlying philosophy that when everything is planned, “the unseemly, the unpleasant and the disastrous” can be avoided.
Elena and Bill Richardson are typical of the inhabitants of Shaker Heights: successful, wealthy and white. She’s a journalist with the local newspaper. He’s a lawyer. They like to do their bit for the less fortunate members of society, regularly attending local fund raising events and donating to UNICEF. They plan that their four children will become equally respectable and successful.
Their complacency is disrupted when Mrs Richardson rents an apartment to Mia Warren, a single mother and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl. They’re a nomadic pair, having travelled from state to state with all their possessions stuffed into a VW Rabbit. The lives of the Warrens and the Richardsons begin to coalesce. Friendships are born, confidences shared and affiliations formed.
Interesting enough but it’s not until Ng introduces a moral dilemma that the book really take off. The spark is a custody battle over a Chinese baby. Friends of Mrs Richardson want to adopt her but the girl’s birth mother wants her back. Who has the greater right to consider herself the true mother.
It came, over and over, down to this. What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?
As the community takes sides on this question, two other moral quandaries regarding a baby come to light. In one, a surrogate mother is so attached to the unborn child she feels unable to go through with the agreement. The other shows a teenager afraid her university education and her whole future will be jeopardised if she doesn’t have an abortion. In all three cases the desires of biological mothers are counterpoised with the claims of potential parents whose wealth could provide the child with greater opportunities in life. The question is posed: should the child’s or the mother’s interest prevail?
The story occasionally labours under the weight of this question but the characterisation more than compensates for this weakness. The two matriarchs in particular are vividly drawn. Mia is an interesting character whose highly imaginative photographs are collectors items but she works as a cleaner to make ends meet.
The real hit of this novel for me however was Mrs Richardson (she is hardly ever referred to by her given name “Elena”). She comes across as a control freak, a woman so convinced her friend should win the custody battle that she is willing to act unethically and put another friendship in jeopardy. And yet Ng shows beneath her cold exterior is a woman who suppressed her dreams and aspirations believing a life of controlled domesticity was the way to happiness.
… she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. … Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or perhaps to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never —set anything ablaze.
Little Fires Everywhere was both an engrossing and a frustrating read. It begins with a fire that engulfs the Richardson house. The youngest daughter, Doc Marten-wearing, troubled teen Izzy, is the main suspect, but it soon becomes clear that the inferno has been deliberately caused with, as the firefighters put it, “multiple points of origin”. The novel then tracks back in time to look at the flash points that led up to the conflagration.
At the same time, the pace and structure of the story keep us turning the pages, eager to find out why the fires were set, who will get custody of the baby, what secrets are buried in Mia’s past and whether their uncovering will lead to catastrophe.
I enjoyed watching how Ng wove together the different plot lines, keeping us in suspense about the identity of the arsonist, how the custody battle will pan out and the secret of Mia’s past. But my enjoyment was tempered by a feeling of frustration that Ng didn’t push further with her exploration of motherhood. Instead I felt the ending was rather too neat and complete.