Little Fires Everywhere [Book Review]

October 13, 2017

Are you a rule follower? Do you believe that following all the rules will lead to a successful and happy life?

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (cover) I/mage: birdseye view of a pristine upper class neighborhood

Genre/Categories: contemporary fiction, family life, mothers and children, complicated family, transracial adoption

***This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

My Summary:

Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, strives to be a perfect planned community. In the words of the author, there is a “propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws…a utopia.” Every winding road is thoughtfully laid out, the list of house colors is a strict guideline, trash pickup is conducted in the alleys and all trash cans are out of sight, and tradition is revered and informs the future. Generations of Elena Richardson’s family have lived in Shaker Heights, and she ensures that her family follows the rules and lives up to expectations. All through her life, she has followed the rules and this is wholeheartedly embraced as her highest value. Part of her personal code of following the rules is giving back to those that are less fortunate whenever she can, and she’s the type who keeps a mental list of her good deeds. Elena especially wants to use her inherited rental property near her home to benefit others. She earnestly seeks out renters that could gain from the advantage of living in her perfect neighborhood in Shaker Heights. Mia Warren, a free-spirited artistic non-rule follower, and her teenage daughter, Pearl, are the most recent beneficiaries of Mrs. Richardson’s benevolence. Although when Mia is less than grateful for Mrs. Richardson’s offer to buy one of Mia’s photographs, Elena Richardson makes a mental note and this slight continues to bother her and becomes a motivation for her future relationship with Mia:

“That’s very generous of you,” Mia’s eyes slid toward the window briefly and Mrs. Richardson felt a twinge of irritation at this lukewarm response to her philanthropy.

As the story unfolds, the two families become more involved with each other rather than simply remaining tenant and landlord. Soon the children become friends, Pearl spends her afternoons at the Richardson home, and Mia accepts a part-time position as a light housekeeper and cook for the Richardson family.  Izzy Richardson, a teenage child who shares Mia’s artistic interests and temperament, and Mia develop a close relationship while Izzy learns photography skills in Mia’s darkroom. When one of Mrs. Richardson’s best friends is in the process of adopting a Chinese-American child,  the community is divided on the ethical issues and Elena Richardson and Mia Warren find themselves on opposite sides of the custody battle between the birth mother and adoptive mother. This conflict triggers Mrs. Richardson to find out about Mia’s motivations, her secrets, and her mysterious past. All of this has devastating consequences for the two families.

Amazon Rating (October): 4.4 Stars

My Thoughts:

A rule follower and a free spirit…

I give 5 stars sparingly and I won’t tell you a book is amazing without experiencing a “book hangover” at its completion. Little Fires Everywhere is already high on my list for my best reads of 2017. It’s an engaging, complicated, and complex story filled with family drama and a highly debated ethical issue regarding adoption rights. The story explores the multidimensional characters from all sides and the author causes the reader to seriously think about various situations and fall in love with these “real” and memorable characters.

While reading, I kept imagining Emily Gilmore of Gilmore Girls as Elena Richardson. Some of you might relate to that comparison. Elena is referred to as Mrs. Richardson throughout the story and rarely as Elena. I think this helps the reader appreciate the difference in status between Mrs. Richardson and Mia Warren.

An interesting structure of the story is that in the first chapter we find out about the devastating fire that occurs and throughout the remainder of the story we become intimately acquainted with the characters and explore motivations involved in the tragedy. How could this happen in a perfectly planned, ideal community? It reminded me of shows like Desperate Housewives where everything looks perfect from the outside and then we find out about their messy lives.

Also interesting is that Celeste Ng is from Shaker Heights! Thus, she has an authentic voice here.

I think the title Little Fires Everywhere is brilliant and Ng weaves its meaning throughout the story. Here’s one example from the end of chapter seven:

Something inside Izzie reached out to something in her and caught fire. “All right,” Mia said, and opened the door wider to let Izzie inside.

Ng explores the theme of rules as she brilliantly illustrates the differences between Elena Richardson and Mia Warren in these passages (from Elena’s point of view):

All [Elena’s] life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that never–could never–set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration. This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well. Of course she’d had to give up a few things here and there. But she had a beautiful house, a steady job, a loving husband, a brood of healthy and happy children; surely that was worth the trade. Rules existed for a reason; if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t you might burn the world to the ground.

Yet here was Mia…….dragging her fatherless child from place to place, scraping by on menial jobs, justifying it by insisting to herself…she was making Art. Probing other people’s business with her grimy hands. Stirring up trouble. Heedlessly throwing sparks. Mrs. Richardson seethed, and deep inside her, the hot speck of fury that had been carefully banked within her burst into flame. Mia did whatever she wanted, Mrs. Richardson thought, and what would be the result? …. Chaos for everyone. You can’t just do what you want, she thought. Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?  ~from Chapter 11

Themes: As you can see, Ng’s writing is beautiful and there is a great deal to think about here and the above passage represents a small portion of the thought-provoking content that Ng so liberally provides the reader. In addition to following rules, other themes involve art and expression, adolescence, motherhood, friendship, family and family values, loyalty, secrets, privilege, and trans-racial adoption.

Personal Opinion: One weakness for me, and this is a personal trigger for me, is Ng’s viewpoint toward women who choose to stay at home rather than work outside the home as well. Her viewpoint is more obvious in her first book Everything I Never Told You, but it is evident in this story, too:

A part of her wanted to stay home, to simply be with her children, but her own mother had always scorned those women who didn’t work. “Wasting their potential,” she had sniffed. “You’ve got a good brain, Elena. You’re not just going to sit home and knit, are you?” A modern woman, she always implied was capable–nay, required–to have it all.

I think women should be able to choose their career path without judgment, criticism, or demeaning comments from other women (including authors). My mother chose to stay home with her children for her career and I appreciate her sacrifice and the stable and loving home she created for her family. I think feminism should support all women and honor their individual choices. (she said stepping off her soapbox!)

One More Opinion: When I first heard the buzz about the release of Little Fires Everywhere, I noticed that other reviewers were excited because they had loved her first work, Everything I Never Told You. Therefore, I set about reading Everything… before the Little Fires… release date. Although Everything… is beautifully written and others have loved it, I was disappointed. For me, it was too sad and depressing with little hope or redemption. Nevertheless, I wanted to give Everything … a try because of the excellent early reviews and because Ng is a beautiful writer. I was not disappointed! Little Fires Everywhere is an amazing read! Not all reviewers agree with me that Little Fires Everywhere is better than her first work. If you’ve read both, what is your opinion?

Stereotypes: A last small concern is that a few characters seemed stereotypical. Does this concern you as you read? It was something I noticed but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story or star rating.

Highly Recommended: Little Fires Everywhere is highly recommended for readers who might enjoy taking time to appreciate beautiful and complex writing, who love the intricate details of entangled relationships, who like to explore different perspectives on motherhood, and who are looking for an intriguing, compelling, honest, and thought-provoking read. This is an excellent book club selection!

Read an interview with Celeste Ng here.

Another interview with Ng here.

(There are several more to choose from if you search Google.)

My Rating: 5 Stars


Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere Information Here.

Meet the Author, Celeste Ng

Author, Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, won the Hopwood Award, the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the
ALA’s Alex Award and is a 2016 NEA fellow. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter: @pronounced_ing.


I’d love to hear in comments if you’ve read Little Fires Everywhere (or Celeste Ng’s first book).

What do you think about Mrs. Richardson’s values of always following the rules for a happy successful life?

Are you a rule follower or a free spirit?

Happy Reading Everyone!

“Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke

“I love the world of words, where life and literature connect.”
~Denise J Hughes

“Reading good books spoils you for enjoying bad ones.”
~Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Looking Ahead:

I continue to hear buzz about Refugee which is highly recommended by librarians and teachers for middle-grade readers (grades 5-8). *Note: I haven’t read it but it’s on my TBR.

RefugeeRefugee by Alan Gratz 

This is a story from the perspectives of three young people as they leave their countries of origin (Nazi Germany, Cuba, and Syria) as refugees to seek safety. Recommended for mature middle-grade readers and above. This might be a good selection for a parent-child book club. Good literature can be enjoyed by all ages!

Refugee Information Here.

Turtles all the Way DownI’m planning to review the YA selection Turtles All the Way Down by John Green next week. He’s a popular author with YA readers and most known for The Fault in Our Stars. Because the topic of this book is OCD and anxiety in a teen’s life and is receiving a lot of buzz right now, I’m curious to check it out.

Turtles Information Here. 

***Updated 4/30/2020 with my reviews of Refugee and Turtles (here in the same post).

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      • I haven’t seen the series yet. I didn’t think of the book as dark though… I wonder if it’s a spin for the series? Or did my review make it seem dark? Now I’m curious. It is complicated family and relationship drama.

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