Little Fires Everywhere is a powerful story that I never would have read had I known what it was actually about. I’m glad that I read it, and I applaud Ng’s astute and canny characterizations. However, this book is the closest I’ve ever come to actually being triggered by something, which I’ll explain further below. I’ve read books in the past that were very dark or depressing, but I could recognize those elements and finish the book, knowing that the book wasn’t really for me but no worse off for having read it. But this book messed with my head and brought back to the forefront of my mind feelings I thought had been laid to rest.
“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
On its surface, Little Fires Everywhere is the story of two families from vastly different walks of life that find themselves intermingling. The Richardsons are firmly rooted in Shaker Heights, the closest thing to a utopian community to be found around Cleveland. Theirs is a comfortably wealthy family with stair-step children, two boys and two girls born in quick succession, and a mother and father who are loving and fulfilled by their respective careers and their family. Lexi is a brainy but cool senior, Trip is a junior and a star athlete, Moody is a quietly contemplative artist and a sophomore. Then there’s Izzy, the freshman and the black sheep of the family. Izzy is trouble; just ask anyone.
“Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance. We all do things we regret now and then. You just have to carry them with you.”
Mia and Pearl Warren are vagabonds, and have moved from place to place ever since Pearl was born. After so many years on the road, Mia decides it is time to settle down and find a home base, allowing her daughter to have a more normal school experience for her high school years. Mia is a photographer, and an incredibly talented one, but her work is unique and radical and she prefers to only sell her work when absolutely necessary, taking odd jobs to pay the bills and put food on the table. They find a home in Shaker Heights when Mrs. Richardson accepts their application to live in her rental property. From here, the two families become tightly intertwined, for better or for worse.
“Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
When I picked up this book, I thought it was going to be a novel of teenage rebellion and parents who just don’t understand. And to an extent, that’s what it was. Elena Richardson came across to me as an overbearing, self-righteous shrew, and I didn’t blame Izzy one bit for her rebellious nature. Then we have Mia, who is a wonderful mother even though her reality looks nothing like the life Mrs. Richardson believes is a requirement for proper parenting. Mia really listens, and really sees, each and every member of the Richardson household in ways they can’t see themselves. And though Pearl may long for the normalcy she sees in the home of her new friends, I feel that she has more than the Richardson children can even dream of. All of these elements combined with the depth of characterizations and the tightly woven, multifaceted relationships made for a very compelling story.
“The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”
So, what elicited such visceral feelings within me? The custody battle, and the information that was revealed throughout that controversy. Chris and I were unable to have children, so I could put myself in the shoes of the couples in this book who so desperately wanted a child but couldn’t biologically have one of their own. We’ve tried the treatments mentioned in the book, only to have them fail every single time. We considered more radical measures, like IVF and surrogacy, but ultimately couldn’t afford them or trust them to work. We mourned when I had to have a radical hysterectomy at 26. We tried foster parenting only to have children given to us, taken away, and then given to us again only to be taken away as soon as their mother was sober enough. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced heartbreak like I did the second time the social workers came to pick up these two little boys, who ran and hid and screamed, pleading with the workers to let them stay this time. Our hearts couldn’t handle it, so we closed our home and began looking into private adoption, only to discover that the average total cost hovered around $40,000, which was almost our entire year’s income.
“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all at the same time. You could see it every time you looked at her: layered in her face was the baby she’d been and the child she’d become and the adult she would grow up to be, and you saw them all simultaneously, like a 3-D image. It made your head spin. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”
And so we had to lay that dream to rest and be satisfied with the life we had built without children. If God has something different planned for our future, we’ll be ready. But if not, we’ll be happy with the life He’s given us. We have an absolutely amazing life, but we have suffered the pain of childlessness. It’s why the concept of abortion hurts me so deeply, because I would happily take an unwanted child if given a chance, and anytime abortion comes up in fiction it makes me ache. Combined with the bitter custody battle at the center of this story, it cut even more deeply than normal.
“It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
Adopting a baby only to have the birth mother pop out of nowhere before the adoption was finalized and demanding the return of her child is something from my nightmares. If we would have been able to adopt we would have loved to have an open adoption, where the child could grow up knowing and seeing their birthmother, but the thought of thinking that child could be suddenly taken from us is petrifying. Because the wound from our ordeal is still raw, I definitely would not have read this book had I known how much that custody battle would dominate the plot. It was a powerful story, but I’m going to have to plumb the depths of something light like Middle Grade fantasy to sooth the pain that this book reawakened in me.
”Anger is fear’s bodyguard.”
If you are a reader of predominantly general or contemporary fiction, Little Fires Everywhere is definitely worth your time. It’s deep and clever and the characters are so fleshed out they almost leap from the pages. But if you’ve ever struggled with fertility or are close to someone who has, be aware that this book might be painful and reopen old wounds.
You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!