Today, when a woman becomes a mother, she finds herself mired in endless, passionate parenting debates: what kind of labor and delivery does she want? Breastfeeding or formula? Co-sleeping or cry-it-out? Celeste Ng’s new novel, Little Fires Everywhere, dives far beneath these debates to touch the questions that ultimately fuel those anxieties. What truly makes a good mother, and what kind of mothering makes for a good life?
The book takes place in the early 1990s in Shaker Heights, a planned community outside of Cleveland, Ohio, which seems like the perfect place to raise children. It’s a well-to-do, highly ordered city, where the citizens make good choices, follow the rules, and succeed. The quiet prosperity of the town is shaken up by a controversial child custody case. A poor Chinese immigrant woman left her baby outside of a fire station when she knew she couldn’t properly care for her. The baby was given to an upstanding, rich white couple who had been trying to have a child for 14 years. Later, the birth mother gets back on her feet, and when she locates her daughter, she tries to regain custody. Questions swirl about her fitness as a mother, and the couples’ fitness to raise a Chinese baby.
This dispute highlights the differences between two central characters, Elena Richardson and Mia Warren. Mrs. Richardson is a native of Shaker Heights who exemplifies the benefits of its rule-following ways—she is married to her college sweetheart, has four beautiful children, and lives in a gorgeously comfortable home. She believes that “rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground” (161).
Mia, by contrast, is an itinerant artist with a mysterious past and a high school-age daughter who rents an apartment from Mrs. Richardson. Their lives are intertwined far beyond the normal relationship of landlord and tenant thanks to the relationships their children form.
Mrs. Richardson’s sophomore son, Moody, first makes friends with Mia’s daughter Pearl. He then introduces her to his siblings: Lexie, a popular and beautiful senior, Trip, a popular and athletic junior, and Izzie, a disgruntled and rebellious freshman. (While Moody and Trip provide important plot points, the emphasis of the book is on the relationships between the mothers and daughters.) As the families grow closer, each daughter is attracted to the other’s mother and that mother’s ability to provide what her own lacks. Mia, who lives outside of Mrs. Richardson’s rules for a good life, comforts Lexie when she can’t manage to keep the rules, and she helps Izzie rebel against unjust authority. Pearl, on the other hand, longs for the stability and comfort of the Richardson home, and as she spends more time there, gains confidence. But these mutually beneficial relationships are thrown into chaos by the child custody case. Mrs. Richardson is good friends with the white woman who gained custody. Mia is a co-worker of the baby’s mother. Both Mrs. Richardson and Mia are convinced that their cause in the conflict is just—while they care deeply about the case at hand, their positions are determined by their own mothering histories, and it becomes a kind of internal referendum on their own success as mothers and people. In the end, the conflict spirals out of control, leading to consequences that no one intended.
The conflict is exacerbated by Mrs. Richardson’s trust in the rules to make everything turn out right. Over the course of the book she becomes more and more curious about Mia and seeks to uncover her mysterious past. This past reveals in increasingly-stark shades how different they are, and how committed they are to their own philosophies of motherhood. Mrs. Richardson learns about a heartrending choice Mia had to make, and she thinks about it a lot:
“What would she have done if she’d been in that situation? Mrs. Richardson would ask herself this question over and over . . . . Each time, faced with this impossible choice, she came to the same conclusion. I would never have let myself get into that situation, she told herself. I would have made better choices along the way.” (238–239)
When Mrs. Richardson confronts a situation in which the rules don’t work, she simply determines that she would have followed the rules better in the first place. This is a comforting fiction, but even the most dedicated of rule-followers will run into problems with no easy answers (as a native legalist I was very disappointed to be reminded of this). The book forces Mrs. Richardson to confront bad situations that can’t be controlled, the little fires everywhere that can’t be contained by the rules. She learns that mothers can’t make life perfect for their children, no matter how hard they try, and often the trying itself creates conflict and damage.
I enjoyed reading this book and pondering the questions it raises (many more than are covered in this review), but sometimes the characters were flat and a little emotionless. In the opening scene, the Richardson family watches their house burn to the ground, and no one seems that upset. They all seem curiously detached from a moment that is pretty traumatic, and that detachment shows up in other places in the book. Sometimes this created distance between me and the characters, and while I was curious about their fates, it wasn’t a page turner. Of all the characters, I had the hardest time connecting to Pearl, and initially I thought it was because she exhibited that emotional flatness. But upon further reflection, my disconnection was resentment toward her for becoming the girl every girl is supposed to be: brilliant but not attention-getting, sexy without trying to be sexy, and in some rare, undefinable way, not like all the other girls. In her perfect mix of following/not following the rules she felt like that most elusive of all rules: the one no one knows they’re supposed to follow, until they see someone else following it.
Then I realized that she’s actually a good reminder that people who achieve that kind of exalted status aren’t trying to achieve it (which makes it even more annoying); she’s just figuring out who she wants to be and what works for her. When you figure out what you need, you are different than everyone else, not because you’re trying to be, but because you’re brave enough to follow your conscience and have the courage of your convictions, even if others disagree. That’s a good lesson for everyone, especially rule-following addicts such as myself and mothers who worry they will never make the grade. The law is good, but no one will be justified by the law. When we stop trying to be justified by it (and other people), life becomes much scarier, but it also becomes much more free.
Anna Smith (MA, biblical studies, Westminster Seminary California) is an assistant editor for The Gospel Coalition, and she writes at thebeautifulplaceblog.com. She lives with her husband, Andy, in Rochester, Minnesota.