LIT­TLE FIRES EV­ERY­WHERE

by Celeste Ng; Pen­guin Press (338 pages, $27)

Texarkana Gazette - - ACCENT - —BY MAR­ION WINIK NEWSDAY

Af­ter a first book as wildly suc­cess­ful as Celeste Ng’s “Ev­ery­thing I Never Told You” (2014), an au­thor’s sopho­more ef­fort ap­pears like a movie star from a limou­sine, klieg lights glar­ing, pa­parazzi and crit­ics wait­ing. Knives or bou­quets? Which will it be?

While “Ev­ery­thing I Never Told You” fo­cused in­tensely and sin­gle-mind­edly on solv­ing the mys­tery of a teenage death within a con­text of gen­der and racial stereo­typ­ing, “Lit­tle Fires Ev­ery­where” has more pages, more char­ac­ters and more themes, among them af­flu­ence; con­formism and their dis­con­tents; cross-racial adop­tion and the rights of bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents; and what artists have to of­fer the rest of us. These sub­jects are ad­dressed by a tale of three fam­i­lies: the Richard­sons, the War­rens and the McCul­loughs, all of Shaker Heights, Ohio.

We meet the Richard­sons first, and they are slammed with a ma­jor tragedy in the first sen­tence. Mrs. Richard­son—Elena, but the nar­ra­tor refers to her as Mrs. Richard­son—has a beau­ti­ful home in a planned-for-per­fec­tion subur­ban en­clave. “The green­ness of the lawn, the sharp lines of white mor­tar be­tween the bricks, the rus­tle of the maple leaves in the gen­tle breeze … the soft smells of de­ter­gent and cook­ing and grass that min­gled in the en­try­way”—clearly, the Richard­sons live in heaven.

But on the morn­ing in ques­tion, Mrs. Richard­son awak­ens to the “shrill scream of the smoke de­tec­tor.” Rush­ing around, she finds ev­ery bed­room “empty ex­cept for the smell of gaso­line and a small crack­ling fire set di­rectly in the mid­dle of each bed, as if a de­mented Girl Scout had been camp­ing there.” It’s no mys­tery. She and ev­ery­one else in town pretty much know who did this—her black sheep, the youngest of the four Richard­son chil­dren, Izzy.

These are the lit­eral “lit­tle fires ev­ery­where” of the ti­tle. But this con­trol­ling metaphor also de­scribes a larger group of prob­lems, as well as a means of re­sis­tance to con­ven­tion. (The book is ded­i­cated to “those out on their own paths, set­ting lit­tle fires,” pre­sum­ably not meant to en­cour­age ar­son.)

Af­ter the open­ing chap­ter, we flip back a year to meet the se­cond fam­ily. The War­rens are a mother-daugh­ter pair who ar­rive in town and move into the Richard­son’s rental prop­erty. Mia, a bril­liant art pho­tog­ra­pher, and her teenage daugh­ter, Pearl, are itin­er­ants. They own no more than they can fit in their VW Rab­bit and pull up stakes when­ever Mia gets the urge. Mia is a com­pli­cated and mys­te­ri­ous woman with se­crets and losses in her past that will start up an­other one of those lit­tle blazes.

Pearl’s first friend is one of the Richard­son chil­dren, a boy named Moody, who falls in love at first sight watch­ing her as­sem­ble her bed on her new front lawn. To Moody, raised in the most ex­trav­a­gant con­sumerist style, the War­rens’ makeshift, thrift-store life is like a “magic trick, as mirac­u­lous as … pulling a steam­ing pie from a silk top hat.” Sim­i­larly, his sis­ter, that icon­o­clast Izzy, finds her first sym­pa­thetic men­tor in Mia. But Pearl is no less mes­mer­ized by the Richard­son fam­ily and their life­style, en­deav­or­ing to dis­ap­pear com­pletely into the padded chairs of their TV room. When Mrs. Richard­son, who works as a jour­nal­ist at the lo­cal pa­per, hires Mia as a part-time house­keeper and cook, the en­mesh­ment of the two fam­i­lies is com­plete.

To drive them apart, en­ter the third fam­ily, the McCul­loughs. The Richard­sons’ once-child­less friends are now cel­e­brat­ing the first birth­day of an adopted Asian baby found aban­doned at the lo­cal fire sta­tion. Tiny Mirabelle—a note in the box said May Lin, but they de­cided to change it—will be the lo­cus of an­other lit­tle fire, and this one re­ally isn’t so lit­tle. It’s the kind of thing that would be the cen­tral plot line of a Jody Pi­coult novel—mean­ing big trou­ble and a cus­tody bat­tle ahead.

Celeste Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, and has poured her knowl­edge of the place into the thor­ough and rather bru­tal de­pic­tion of it here. And she also em­bod­ies its spirit in Mrs. Richard­son her­self. “All her life she had learned that pas­sion, like fire, was a dan­ger­ous thing. It so eas­ily went out of con­trol,” Ng writes. Bet­ter to keep that flame “care­fully con­trolled. Do­mes­ti­cated. Happy in cap­tiv­ity. The key, she thought, was to avoid con­fla­gra­tion.”

Poor Mrs. Richard­son. Avoid­ing con­fla­gra­tion seems un­likely in a book with this ti­tle.

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