That fear was completely unfounded as I loved this book as much as its predecessor. Maybe a little more even since Ng has improved upon both her writing style (which I already liked the first time!) and her story.
Again, we’re thrown right into the “end game” and work our way backwards into the past, learning how what happens in the end, is pretty much inevitable from the very beginning…
The most impressive, though, is Ng’s “cast”: Mia, the artsy photographer, whose mysterious past still haunts her and let’s her lead a nomadic lifestyle with her daughter Pearl. Mia is more of a silent observer, someone who watches and listens. Who won’t judge but offer a shoulder to cry on and an arm to support others.
““Do what it takes,” Pauline had said to her as she had hugged her good-bye.”
And Mia does it. Every single time.
Almost completely altruistic in her behaviour towards others (with her daughter Pearl a notable exception), Mia is the linchpin upon which the entire novel rests – and it works tremendously well.
“It turned out that despite their best intentions, her parents had prepared her exceptionally well for art school.”
Pearl herself is – as one might imagine – not exactly the typical teenager albeit her school life is difficult at times, boys become a very distinct interest, well, and lots of other common issues. Nevertheless, due to her constant moving with her mother, Pearl had to learn to become independent early on and she has become truly empathetic.
Finally, there are the Richardson’s: Mrs. Elena Richardson, the matriarch of the family whose primary agenda is “playing by the rules” and “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”. She thinks of herself as progressive and supportive of those who are worse off than she is. In truth, though, she tries to build up favours with anyone she meets and those who play by her rules are rewarded and those who dare say no to Mrs. Richardson are either “discarded” or even punished for their non-conformity.
Mr. Richardson is more or less an afterthought – he’s, of course, successful in his job and supports his wife out of misplaced loyalty and self-imposed pressure. He does what his wife expects him to do and any kind of small doubt is quickly suppressed by what he considers his duty.
The Richardson’s have four children: Moody, the slightly brutish guy who has a crush on Pearl but doesn’t dare approach her and who is both crushed and spiteful when Pearl cops off with his brother Trip.
Trip is the good-looking type who gets all the girls – and loses interest in them just as quickly as he picked them up. Just Pearl is special…
Lexie has it all figured out: Having known her boyfriend Brian for years, dating him for two, having “done the deed” with him recently, she already pictures her studies at Yale which accepted her, her triumphant return to her hometown as well as subsequent marriage, kids and a sheltered life in suburbia. Little does she know what awaits her only in the few months this book covers, much less of what’s certain and what’s not…
Last but not least among the siblings, there’s Izzy. The black sheep of the family. Isabelle Marie Richardson surely is a misfit in the Richardson family. She was born prematurely and due to the constant critical observation by her mother, has grown wary, sceptical and, paradoxically, to be free-spirited. She is one of the “crazy ones” in that glorious advertisement “Think Different” by Apple.
Technically, there are the McCulloughs, Bebe Chow, a Chinese immigrant, their/her daughter May Ling-Mirabelle and others but while they’re all interesting to read about, they have to take a back seat because the main cast needs all the room in this fine-spun, brilliantly-told narrative about freedom, loss and redemption.
There’s a lot to like even about the more antagonistic characters because Ng’s tremendous talent at painting soulful character portraits full of empathy and understanding – deservedly or not – that every single person feels “real”, right and believable.
Mia’s story, the battle for custody, all of that is heart-rending already but the way especially the child generation acts among each other and towards the adults, are what leaves you breathless and engaged. You may anticipate at some points what’s going to happen but that doesn’t matter at all because of the fabulous writing, the impeccable style and the sheer talent that “Little Fires Everywhere” exudes.
“Mia held her for a moment, buried her nose in the part of Pearl’s hair. Every time she did this, she was comforted by how Pearl smelled exactly the same. She smelled, Mia thought suddenly, of home, as if home had never been a place, but had always been this little person whom she’d carried alongside her.”
Ng is a force of nature when it comes to telling her stories: She starts slow and sometimes, things get slightly confusing but what started with a bang that should be hard to beat will slowly creep up on you, enclose you and finally sweep you away if you let it. It’s a literary landslide and, again, paradoxically, you want to be in it.
Or, to stay within the main motif of the book…
““Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.””
… and, yes, that may be true but as Mia puts it so fittingly…
“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow.”
Please, please, more of this, dear Celeste Ng, and, of course, you, yes, YOU, go and read this book!