Shaker Heights is a perfectly planned suburb, where everyone lives successful and enriching lives. Nobody embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, who writes for a local newspaper, has a successful husband, four well loved children and a perfectly manicured lawn. Everything is seemingly perfect until Mia Warren – a enigmatic artist – arrives with her teenage daughter Pearl and rents a house from the Richardsons. All of the Richardson children are drawn to the new residents, but Mia’s disregard for playing by the rules threatens to unravel the carefully ordered community.
When friends of the Richardsons’ find themselves in the middle of a custody battle for the child they are hoping to adopt, battle lines are drawn and Elena Richardson finds herself on the opposing side to Mia Warren. It is this that sparks her desire to find our more about these new residents to Shaker Heights, but her digging shatters her own world more than she expected.
Underlying themes of Little Fires Everywhere
The fear of the unknown
At the beginning of the story we see that Elena Richardson feels like she helping Mia Warren, who she sees as being less fortunate than herself. As the story unravels we begin to see that Elena Richardson has lived the live that was planned and predicted for her, while Mia Warren lives a life she has created for herself that is different from what was planned or predicted for her. As the background of both Elena’s and Mia’s life unravel, the dynamic to their relationship alters. Elena’s sympathy for Mia’s situation warps to more of an anger, which could be perceived as a reaction to an underlying jealousy of Mia leading her own version of her life and not one others feel she should lead.
As more is discovered about Mia’s past, there is also a change in power balance between Elena and Mia. Elena begins to realise that Mia is not one to pity because ultimately she has full control over her life, which makes her unpredictable. This unsettles Elena who is extremely restricted by the societal expectations of Shaker Heights and keeps to the rule book.
At the beginning, Shaker Heights is portrayed as a perfectly planned suburb where every resident is given equal opportunity. However as the custody battle of Mirabelle plays out, we realise that this isn’t necessarily the case. Mirabelle’s biological mother ‘Bebe’ abandoned her through sheer desperation of not being able to provide her with her basic needs, opposed to a lack of love. This narrative is often repeated as the custody battle continues with the the argument of the hopeful adopters ‘The McCulloughs’ being able to provide a better, more secure life based heavily on the fact they are wealthier and therefore can offer better opportunities.
There a deeper part of this social inequality narrative that delves further than social class and also touches on race, immigration and heritage. The argument on behalf of Mirabelle’s biological mother is that she can provide a better insight into the baby’s Chinese heritage, but this is overruled by the wealth and position of the adopters.
Mother – Daughter relationships
Woven through many of the storylines are complex mother – daughter relationships, whose dynamics are heavily linked with a narrative of control, but also of longing, trust and the power of a mother’s love.
Bebe faces very public judgement in order to fight for her daughter, but what is most interesting about this is that even the Mrs. McCullough comments on how Mirabelle has a bond and trusts Bebe, which makes her question if that means there will never be a role as mother available when it comes to Mirabelle.
The relationship with Mia and her estranged mother is complicated and filled with heartache. We learn this is due to Mia’s parents trying to forcefully guide Mia to live a conventional life. This relationship is explored from a parental perspective filled with regret. This is a particularly interesting relationship dynamic because we see it again in more depth with Elena and her daughter Izzy. Elena’s need for control and a fear of losing Izzy, embodies a harsh and angry attitude towards her. This in turn damages the relationship between the two and causes Elena to repeat the process of fear and control leading onto parental regret.
The relationship between Mia and Pearl is relatively open and there is a strong feeling of trust between the two. There is also an interesting dynamic between Elena’s daughter Izzy and Mia. Although they are not mother and daughter, Izzy comments on how she feels more connected to Mia, which is linked to their underlying mutual respect and trust.
My thoughts on Little Fires Everywhere
The direction for the story of Little Fires Everywhere is relatively predictable, although there are a number of twists and turns along the way. The strength of the story and what makes it such a interesting read is more ingrained into the relationships between the characters, in particular mother – daughter relationships.
Celeste Ng has beautifully shaped each character, which makes it easier for the reader to see them as a product of their lives and experiences. This in turns makes it easier to understand their attitudes and the choices they make. Personally I felt there was a little too much time spent on the custody battle, which although important to the story, could have been less of a focus, making way for more depth to be added to Elena’a and Mia’s past.
Overall I found Little Fires Everywhere enjoyable read, but if I’m being brutally honest it didn’t really live up to the hype.