The novel then flashes back to the previous year when a single mother and her teenage daughter, Mia and Pearl, move into the Richardsons’ rental house in a neighborhood in Shaker Heights lined with duplexes. But they needn’t worry; from any outward appearance, the duplexes appear to be single family homes, so the tenants can avoid any stigma associated with renting half of a house.
For all of the ostensible order, comfort, traditions and picture-perfect normalcy of the Richardsons, Mia and Pearl Warren represent the opposite. They have lived a nomadic lifestyle, guided by mom Mia’s artistic pursuits. Their pattern has been to pack up their few belongings, travel to different communities, and land in a place where Mia feels she will be inspired to create her photography art. She takes part-time work wherever she can find it to make ends meet, and they make it work with repurposing, thrift stores, and living very economically.
These two worlds converge when Moody Richardson, the youngest Richardson son, who is Pearl’s age, develops a crush on his parents’ tenant’s daughter, and he starts inviting her over to their house. The Richardsons welcome their new friend, and Pearl is enamored of the family and their lifestyle. At the same time, Izzy connects with free-spirited Mia. A rule follower to a tee, Mrs. Richardson has a hard time understanding her rebel daughter Izzy. Izzy won’t abide by the rules if she feels an injustice has occurred, and she questions the accepted “rules” of her privileged community.
All of this groundwork is laid out artfully by Ng as she eases the reader into the central plot, themes, and deep characterizations. She immerses the reader into the daily lives of the Richardson and Warren families. We scratch beneath the surface of the facades and see the different perspectives of the characters. The novel lingers on the characters in a deeply engaging way, the way one relishes devouring every aspect of a new love.
It’s not until about halfway through the novel that the central conflict occurs. A couple that is close with the Richardson family finds themselves in a custody dispute. They adopted a Chinese baby girl who was abandoned at a fire station. The mother surfaces, the media gets a hold of the story, and the tranquil community of Shaker Heights becomes consumed with the very personal, heart-rending ordeal. Ng gets inside the head of all sides without taking a position. The reader feels for the young, desperate Chinese mother and the generous, loving adoptive parents.
Mia and Mrs. Richardson find themselves on opposite sides of this dispute, and the clash reveals aspects of Mrs. Richardson’s personality that run counter to her impeccable image. She digs deep into Mia’s background and finds out something shocking that ties into one of the major themes of the novel, the bond of mothers and daughters.
Little Fires Everywhere is a layered, immersive novel in which the characters are so well developed that the drama and conflicts that unfold flow seamlessly throughout the novel. This is Ng’s second novel, and I read her first, Everything I Never Told You. I just hope it’s not too long a wait until she graces the literary world with more of her work.