As a college student who has long since deviated from finishing books in one sitting or even just reading for the fun of it (sound familiar?), it takes a lot to keep me invested. I can’t count how many books I’ve started and promptly forgotten due to a weak plot, lackluster characters, or whatever it is I need in a book to justify spending precious time – which I could be using for sleeping, eating, or studying – alone in my room, turning pages until I reach the end.
From the first chapter of Celeste Ng’s literary fiction novel, Little Fires Everywhere, I knew it was a book I could lose myself in. If ever I’ve read a good hook, the first line of Little Fires Everywhere is just it: “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” The chapter goes on to introduce the rest of the Richardsons, the family at the center of the story, as each of them reacts to coming home to a house on fire. Although the first chapter is the last chronological event in the novel, it sets the stage for a story about how a suburban community – Shaker Heights – deals with intrusions on its tightly-controlled system, and how even its most restrained constituents can snap in the toughest situations.
Little Fires Everywhere’s biggest strength is that it weaves a complex web of relationships. Each character is distinct. They’re authentic, dynamic people. From the Richardson golden child, Lexi, to a traveling artist staying in town, Mia, to Mia’s struggling coworker, Bebe, they all feel real because they’re all flawed. At one time or another, each character has less-than-likeable moments, just like people in the real world. Even characters not central to the story have three-dimensional personalities; occasionally, the narration even swivels to their perspective, lending the reader insight into their worldview. Ng succeeds in giving each character at least a kernel of relatability. I cared about what happened to the people in the story, and that kept me reading.
Ng’s language is also so tight and immersive that Shaker Heights comes alive on the page. It was easy to get lost in the story because the descriptions enveloped me in a new world, which is exactly what I need when I’m trying to escape the pressures of this one. Settings, people, and situations are chronicled in detail, painting vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. The only thing I struggled with was that the descriptions were sometimes long-winded. At times, I forgot what I was supposed to be reading about.
It took a while to reach the book’s main conflict, a controversy over the adoption of a baby who was given to new parents under messy circumstances. In fact, this conflict isn’t even set up until about a third of the way into the story. I was often engrossed enough with the vibrant writing that I wasn’t thinking about the central plotline, but I did occasionally wonder where the story was leading me. Tangents into what feels like insignificant characters’ lives occur every so often. The issue seems to be that the language is so lovely that it isn’t curtailed perhaps as often as it should be.
Maybe the idea, though, is that no character is insignificant in Shaker Heights, no matter how minor they may seem on the surface. And as much as the story may have meandered before focusing, I was never bored. I loved that the prose was so captivating that I felt like I was living in Shaker Heights rather than putting off starting yet another homework assignment in Ann Arbor. All the characters were intriguing, and I wanted to know how they dealt with the adversities they faced. More than anything, Little Fires Everywhere felt real. These are all factors that made me want to keep reading, and why I’ll recommend this book to anyone looking to be captivated by a new world. It’s no wonder that of all the books I’ve tried and failed to finish, though it’s a slow burn, this was the one that enthralled me from beginning to end.