...[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.
As with Ng’s much loved and lauded 2014 debut, Everything I Never Told You, this is a novel about class and race, privilege and prejudice, and unraveling family ties. For a while Ng treads water with mildly involving teen antics and suburban strife. However, after characters pick sides, reveal their true colors and clash, we become in thrall to a multilayered, tightly focused and expertly plotted narrative ... In places, Ng overdoes her fire-and-flames imagery. This niggle aside, she has crafted a deeply impressive novel with the power to provoke and entrance.
[Ng] captures her setting with an ethnologist’s authority, fleshing out the region’s politics (progressive), its local scandal (a divisive custody battle), its infamous high school prank (the legendary Toothpick Day incident). And there are time-capsule pleasures in her evocation of 1997, when Jerry Springer ruled afternoon TV and internet searching was done on AltaVista. The writing is poised and tidy as well—too tidy, in fact, for a novel whose allegiances are with rebels and freethinkers. The characters’ central traits are so baldly stated that they may as well be spelled out in topiary ... Suburbia’s insidious power is that it, much like high school, transforms people into stereotypes, defining them exclusively by the degree to which they 'fit in.' Ms. Ng doesn’t dodge this trap. Which isn’t to say that Little Fires Everywhere isn’t smart and readable. It’s both, eminently so. But 2017 has seen unforgettable breakdowns of suburban domesticity in treatments as various as Nicole Krauss’s intellectual fantasia Forest Dark, Dan Chaon’s gothic horror novel Ill Will and the undiluted surrealism of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot. Ms. Ng’s book seems, in contrast, a little too orderly.
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.
...a claustrophobic and compelling novel ... All of these betrayals and rejections are going down in Ng’s precisely rendered perfect suburb: Shaker Heights, a 'planned community' of immaculate lawns and strict aesthetic rules, in which houses must be either Tudor, English, or French style, and may be painted only one of three permitted colors. It’s a thoroughly domesticated town. The only thing that could possibly disturb such a place would be the enormous emotional heat of a mother/child relationship going wrong.
Ng’s stunning second novel is a multilayered examination of how identities are forged and maintained, how families are formed and friendships tested, and how the notion of motherhood is far more fluid than bloodlines would suggest. Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, was a book-group staple. Laden with themes of loyalty and betrayal, honesty and trust, her latest tour de force should prove no less popular.
This incandescent portrait of suburbia and family, creativity, and consumerism burns bright ... The ultimate effect is cataclysmic. As in Everything I Never Told You, Ng conjures a sense of place and displacement and shows a remarkable ability to see—and reveal—a story from different perspectives. The characters she creates here are wonderfully appealing, and watching their paths connect—like little trails of flame leading inexorably toward one another to create a big inferno—is mesmerizing, casting into new light ideas about creativity and consumerism, parenthood and privilege. With her second novel, Ng further proves she’s a sensitive, insightful writer with a striking ability to illuminate life in America.
...both an intricate and captivating portrait of an eerily perfect suburban town with its dark undertones not-quite-hidden from view and a powerful and suspenseful novel about motherhood ... As both Mrs. Richardson and Mia Warren overstep their boundaries, Ng explores the complexities of adoption, surrogacy, abortion, privacy, and class, questioning all the while who earns, who claims, and who loses the right to be called a mother. This is an impressive accomplishment.