First off, I LOVED Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, which told the story of a teenage girl from a Chinese-American family who commits suicide (not a spoiler; the first line of the book is “Lydia is dead.”). So I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Ms. Ng’s new book, Little Fires Everywhere, from Penguin Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
This book was SUCH a good read. At the start, we learn that “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow…”. So we’re introduced right away to the gossipy planned community of Shaker Heights, the Richardson family, and a little girl with some confusion about her name.
A lifelong resident of Shaker Heights, Elena Richardson embodies the spirit of Shaker Heights: following the rules, behaving in acceptable ways, and guiding her family and (as much as possible) the community down the proper path. Her four children include Trip, the high-school golden boy athlete, Lexie, the star student bound for Yale who has a touch of the rebel in her relationship with her African-American boyfriend, Moody, the nerdy but lovable boy, and Izzy, the alleged firestarter. Into the mix come Mia and her daughter Pearl, a couple of vagabonds who who come to town and rent Elena’s inherited duplex. Mia is an artist who marches to her own drummer, and Pearl is a sensitive girl who instantly bonds with Moody (but has a mega crush on Trip).
Elena is so rigidly living her life that she can’t handle Mia and what she represents. “She had…done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completly different, life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies.” The families become intertwined and involved with a co-worker of Mia’s, who left her infant at a fire station but has turned her life around and now wants her back, although Elena’s close friend and her husband are on the cusp of adopting little Mirabelle (or May Ling). The legal wrangling of the custody battle involves Elena’s husband, an attorney who represents the upper-middle-class couple who want to keep Mirabelle, and Elena makes it her mission in life to get into everyone’s business while she isn’t quite seeing what is going on with her own family. In the legal fight, Mia and Elena are on opposite sides, and there are strong feelings on the part of the adults and the children.
I loved this book. Highly recommended. Great characters, excellent look at cultural appropriation and the issues around mixed-race adoption, as well as a good plot that starts with the Richardson house burning down then goes back and tells the story of what led to that event. I was glued to the book from start to finish. Good for sharp YAs and book clubs. Five stars.