Being a mother can be celebratory. Years of providing selfless love and stability can be met with praise, admiration even. Some may argue they were raised by an actual superhuman. But for the less fortunate, you often wonder why you were dealt such a crappy hand… why you don’t have the mother that others have or why you can’t be the mother that others can be. And then there’s the follow-up to Celeste Ng’s successful 2014 novel (Everything I Never Told You) — Little Fires Everywhere, which isn’t exactly a Hallmark card. Race, privilege, and money all contribute to the book’s exploration of motherhood. And while we’ve tried to define or paint a clear picture of what motherhood means, Little Fires Everywhere proves that there is no obvious right or wrong way to be a mother. There’s just different. But with different comes choices that could easily set an entire family ablaze, forcing you to lose the very thing you’ve fought so hard to keep. And that’s exactly what Ng is doing here in her beautifully constructed novel led by mothers, good or bad.
The story begins with the mysterious disappearance of a troubled Shaker Heights teen (Izzy), who’s just set her perfect upper-middle-class home on fire. Ng takes us back in time to the events that led up to this. Her mother, Elena Richardson, appears to be the ideal mother of four (two teen girls and two teen boys). Poised, present, and persistent. We can’t help but think Ng’s warning us about mothering with conditions and high expectations. When Elena helps a seemingly lower-class Mia Warren (nomadic artist) and her teenage daughter Pearl get an apartment for little to nothing, the mothers’ lives become entangled for better or worse. Ng forces mothers to have to deal with expectations of their own, no matter how delicate and uncomfortable it may feel.
Mothers have a lot of fears — your child connecting more with others has to be high on that list. Ng magnifies this as Pearl becomes enchanted by the Richardsons almost immediately. Their home, wealth, and stability suck her in and, before long, she’s fallen for the oldest son (Trip), begging her mother for a better life. Ng paints a vivid picture of a tense mother/daughter relationship. As the book dissects Izzie’s disconnect from her mother Elena, we understand why she clings to Mia’s artistry and free, progressive spirit. And it’s clear that Izzie and Pearl have never felt like they belong in the worlds they were born in — the worlds their parents chose for them. Soon Elena and Mia clash over the way they parent their children, pushing Mia to blurt out — “It bothers you, doesn’t it? I think you can’t imagine why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got.” This line resonates as we often find ourselves stuck in a bubble, daring anyone to try to teach us, especially the less privileged. Ng peppers these reminders throughout, forcing us to reevaluate our choices and to explore others. And that’s what makes this book beautifully unsettling and dynamic.
Adding gasoline to the flames, Mia befriends Bebe Chow, a working-class immigrant, who works at the Chinese restaurant with her. We learn that, while going through postpartum depression and struggling to provide for her infant, Bebe abandoned her daughter. Elena’s wealthy, white friend Linda McCullough, who’d been struggling to conceive, adopted a Chinese infant around the same time. And by now Ng has us guessing — Is this Bebe’s daughter? To Elena’s disdain, Mia makes it her mission to help Bebe. Ng strategically poses impossible questions for the reader (and jury). Who is the child’s mother? The white woman who has no idea about Chinese culture, or the woman who abandoned her when she had no way to feed her? Bebe made a choice, arguably a mistake (as mothers do)— a mistake, nonetheless. And it cost her. In a heartbreaking moment Ng writes, “She thought she couldn’t take care of the baby and then things changed, and she could. It shouldn’t mean her kid gets taken away forever.” It’s hard to look past the white privilege in this sad situation. Ng so effortlessly proves that alone is what awarded Linda McCullough a child, while lack of resources cost Bebe hers.
When reading this novel, some readers will likely turn their noses up at each character. When Mia’s skeletons are revealed, we’ll quickly forget we’ve all made mistakes and begged for second chances. Instead, we’ll see a woman (a mother) who should have done better. There’s no grey area when it comes to someone else, right? And through this, Ng proves there are no right answers. We now see that even Elena’s privileged daughter (Izzy) is so consumed with the toxicity of her family that she sets little fires to all her siblings’ rooms. Here, Ng masterfully alludes to the mothers’ biggest fear — losing their children. Can you keep them safe without holding on for dear life? Is it controlling parental fear that pushes them away anyway? We’d all like to know.
Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere shows that we all make choices based on what we have and what we know. It’s easy to say what they shouldn’t do or what you wouldn’t do. But one fact remains: there’s no real self-help book to prove there is one way to be a mother. But there is a novel that assures us we are not alone. Through a sure voice and vivid descriptions, Little Fires Everywhere proves there’s no method to this madness, “But the problem with rules was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.” Motherhood.
Lauren Gamble (an Alabama native and California-based writer) has been a creative assistant on an Untitled Netflix Project since 2019. Her other credits include ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” and CBS’s “The Get” pilot. Writing for TV, literary review publications, and teaching English are her primary goals. While becoming a passionate literary and film reviewer, she is also pursuing an MFA in writing at Savannah College of Art and Design. Managing to juggle both career goals and academic demands continue to propel Lauren’s career forward.