Besides watching movies, I also love curling up with a good book. This year, my Goodreads goal is 50 books. I’m a little over 40% of the way there, mostly thanks to many technically heavy books on marketing, filmmaking, and story structure. That said, there’s truly nothing more pleasurable than great fiction storytelling. Just like in my favorite movies, my most loved books are character-driven. Before plot or style, I need strong, memorable characters. This weekend, I finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. If you’re a pop culture nerd like yours truly, you’ll know that the upcoming Hulu miniseries adaptation stars and is produced by the unbelievably talented Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon.
Celeste Ng’s writing style reminds me of that of one of my favorite authors—Marilynne Robinson. There’s this unassuming quietude to it that builds into a force of authority over the course of the novel. Ng crafts a story about a free-spirited artist named Mia who moves into a ritzy progressive suburban neighborhood in Shaker Heights with her daughter Pearl, renting from the Richardsons, an affluent, educated family whose three children become entranced by their new tenants. The Richardson matriarch, Elena Richardson, has reservations about the pair. This lingering skepticism becomes exacerbated by a bitter legal custody battle for a Chinese baby, whose birth mother left her at a fire station but now wants to take her back as she is being fostered by Elena’s best friend.
Ng writes in an omniscient third person point-of-view that allocates each character a even slice of book. And while no one character dominates the narrative, we get to see them each so fully. The novel as a whole forces the reader to think about race, class, and privilege, yes—but never in a heavy-handed way. It’s a book about women who aren’t bound by the constrictions of the Strong Female Character. The women often have strong feelings and attitudes about what motherhood means, but they’re allowed to make mistakes and say the wrong things. Elena Richardson is prying and haughty, but strong-willed and protective. Lexie is vain and selfish, but cunning and decisive. Mia is gentle and kind, but not completely innocent from questionable decisions.
The novel also unfolds in a smart and satisfying way. Ng develops dramatic tension so masterfully. It’s not hard to see how this book is becoming a television show. Each chapter felt like an episode of something like This Is Us, with the same emotional deft and knack for twists and turns.
Little Fires Everywhere is a deeply empathetic novel that asks its characters not who do you represent, but instead, who are you? This question guides the reader throughout the book and fuels the flame which quietly, but persistently demands their attention.