A novel set in an Cleveland suburb in the late 1990s that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives when they move to town.
...[a] delectable and engrossing novel ... a complex and compulsively readable suburban saga that is deeply invested in mothers and daughters ... What Ng has written, in this thoroughly entertaining novel, is a pointed and persuasive social critique, teasing out the myriad forms of privilege and predation that stand between so many people and their achievement of the American dream. But there is a heartening optimism, too. This is a book that believes in the transformative powers of art and genuine kindness — and in the promise of new growth, even after devastation, even after everything has turned to ash.
Little Fires echoes several themes from Ng’s lauded 2014 best-seller, Everything I Never Told You, tracing the fault lines of race, class, and secrecy that run beneath a small Midwestern town. And again, calamity shatters a placid surface on the first page (that title is more than a metaphor). But here, she moves the action up from 1977 to the Clinton-era ’90s and widens her aperture to include a deeper, more diverse cast of characters. Though the book’s language is clean and straightforward, almost conversational, Ng has an acute sense of how real people (especially teenagers, the slang-slinging kryptonite of many an aspiring novelist) think and feel and communicate. Shaker Heights may be a place where 'things were peaceful, and riots and bombs and earthquakes were quiet thumps, muffled by distance.' But the real world is never as far away as it seems, of course. And if the scrim can’t be broken, sometimes you have to burn it down.
[The] comparison between the outsiders and the comfortable middle class is sharp stuff, and Ng has great fun making not-so-subtle digs at the more parochial characters, balancing their myopia with small cracks of insight ... It’s a little bit Desperate Housewives crossed with racial issues on a soundtrack by Alanis Morissette, but as she did in the first half, Ng parses both sides of the interracial adoption argument with fluent prose ... But situations can move a story only so far. After some time, it becomes clear that Ng’s keenness to write a think piece on interracial adoption is greater than her desire to truly inhabit these characters and their desires. Regrettably, even Mia — who Ng frames as the artist-as-truthteller — remains one note, reducing the effectiveness of her arguments about showing people as she sees them. As for the Asian characters, whose role in part is to provide the chorus of dissent against the McCulloughs, they also fall under tropes. Although the stereotypes are sympathetic as opposed to negative (the benevolent neighbor, the desperate mother), they’re never afforded the same depth of emotional life — however limited — that the white characters are. It’s a huge disappointment. Without fully giving voice to the community central to the inciting incident of the novel, Ng risks reinforcing their marginal nature and fortifying middle-class myopia instead of imploding it.