Thursday, May 17, 2018

Little Fires Everywhere

Book Cover of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Book:     Little Fires Everywhere
Author:  Celeste Ng
Edition:  Hardcover Penguin Press 2017

Little Fires Everywhere beautifully layers backstories with enough detail and dialogue to connect the reader to each character and his or her turmoil. Ng carefully pulls back the curtains on a few homes, letting the reader see the choices made, the words said and unsaid, the angst and the love all hidden in homes with their neatly manicured lawns.
As truths are exposed to the reader, they remain hidden between characters. Consequently my heart ached by the time I read the final page. Yet I wasn't left with hopelessness, just the simple truth of the complexity and intersections of our lives and the secrets and longings we each hold.
Little Fires Everywhere would make a strong book group choice for a group looking to read a modern novel and reflect on multiculturalism as well as the gaps between the lives we see and the lives our neighbors and families live.

Internet Resources

Reviews of Little Fires Everywhere ranged substantially, some finding the book too cold or lacking in heat as in the Washington Post's review  or The Guardian’s review. Most focus on the racial themes; some such as Vox's review, focus on the theme of motherhood.
I recommend reading a range of reviews after you have formed your own opinion of the novel, to get a glimpse of how others’ views may have aligned or contrasted with yours.
Racial bias and colorblindness is a strong theme. I recommend reading Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism in Psychology Today, which not only discusses why colorblindness is a form of racism, it offers an alternative in multiculturalism

Major Characters

Mrs. Elena Richardson: mother to the 4 Richardson children, whose house burns down in the opening chapter
Lexie Richardson: oldest Richardson child, senior in high school 
Trip Richardson: second oldest Richardson child, junior in high school
Moody Richardson: third oldest Richardson child, sophomore in high school
Izzy Richardson: youngest Richardson child, freshman in high school
Mia: photographer, 36 years old, Mrs Richardson’s upstairs tenant on Winslow Road and her house cleaner
Pearl: Mia’s daughter, sophomore in high school
Mr. Yang: Mrs. Richardson’s downstairs tenant on Winslow Road
Brian: Lexie’s boyfriend
Pauline Hawthorne: well-known photographer who takes photos of Mia with Pearl as a baby
Anita Rees: New York City Gallery owner who represents Pauline Hawthorne and Mia
Bebe Chow: waitress at Lucky Palace with Mia, and May Ling’s biological mother
May Ling/Mirabelle: Bebe’s baby found at fire station in January
Mrs. Linda McCullough: close friend of Elena’s and adoptive mother of Mirabelle

Discussion Topics

Here are a small selection of discussion topics for Little Fires Everywhere that may help your book group launch a discussion relevant to your groups’ interests. 

Racial and Cultural Biases

Racism and cultural bias is a strong theme throughout the book. Ng, in a book reading in Ann Arbor, comments that 
“We often suppress these feelings [racial and cultural biases] in ourselves, though we can identify them in someone else.”
In Little Fires Everywhere, Lexi Richardson comments,
“ ‘I mean, we’re lucky! No one sees race here.’ ‘Everyone sees race, Lex,’ said Moody. ‘The only difference is who pretends not to.’ ” page 42.
When Lexie brings up having a baby with Brian, Brian thinks she’s crazy saying, 
“ ‘You know what people would say? Everybody would say, oh look, another black kid, knocked a girl up before he even graduated from high school… No way am I going to be that guy.’ ” page 175
Later in the novel, Serena Wong's mother forcefully tells a reporter,
“ ‘To pretend that this baby is just a baby— to pretend like there’s no race issue here— is disingenuous,’ Dr. Wong had snapped, while Serena fidgeted at the edge of the shot. ‘And no, I’m not ‘playing the race card.’ Ask yourself: would we be having such a heated discussion if this baby were blond?’ ” page 152
How do the characters in Little Fires Everywhere reveal and suppress their cultural biases?
Our justice system is built on the idea that being blind is the same thing as being fair. Is it? 
In Colorblindness is Counterproductive, an opinion piece in The Atlantic, Adia Harvey Wingfield states that when people claim  
“that they do not see race, they also can avert their eyes from the ways in which well-meaning people engage in practices that reproduce neighborhood and school segregation, rely on 'soft skills' in ways that disadvantage racial minorities in the job market, and hoard opportunities in ways that reserve access to better jobs for white peers.”
And that it’s important to move away from the colorblind ideology as an important step in breaking down racism.
What do you think? Do you notice biases based on skin color in others? In yourself? How do you respond when you hear someone say “I don’t see color?” 
The Washington Post Review of Little Fires Everywhere sums up that the Asian characters are 
“never afforded the same depth of emotional life — however limited — that the white characters are. It’s a huge disappointment. Without fully giving voice to the community central to the inciting incident of the novel, Ng risks reinforcing their marginal nature and fortifying middle-class myopia instead of imploding it.”
What do you think? Did this novel open up stereotypes for you? Did it reinforce your perceptions? How might Ng have more aggressively broken apart Asian stereotypes? What stereotypical racial views do you hold and how do you work to dismantle your own stereotypical racial views?

Motherhood

Mothers are presented and contrasted sharply through Mrs. Richardson, Mia, Bebe, Linda, and Lexie, who opts for an abortion without informing Brian. 
We hear snippets of the importance of motherhood from many of the characters. For instance, Mia reflects that 
“The idea that someone might take a mother’s child away: it horrified her. It was as if someone had slid a blade into her and with one quick twist hollowed her out, leaving nothing inside but a cold rush of air.” page 121
Mrs. Richardson thinks about the yearning for motherhood,
“how deep that longing to be a mother— that magical, marvelous, terrifying role— ran in her friend.” page 269
And from a father and husband’s perspective, Mr. Richardson reflects about his wife,
“For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One had followed the rules, and one had not.” page 269

How do you think each mother would describe what makes a mother and what is important in motherhood? Does each align their view of motherhood with their actions? Do the mothers in your live align their stated feelings about motherhood with their actions?

Secrets

Ng contrasts the perfect order of Shaker Heights with the hidden selves of the characters. Just like the garbage cans and garage doors in the Shaker Heights housing rules, true feelings are kept out of sight. Through our narrator, the reader watches as one secret after another piles up, some uncovered wholly or partially, many remaining secret and resulting in erroneous assumptions getting made that lead to heartbreak, detachment and loss.
The exposure of the photo of Mia holding Pearl as an infant, ultimately leads to Mia and Pearl leaving Shaker Heights, the place Mia promised they would finally stay. Early in the novel, after Pearl questions her mother about this photo with Lexie, Moody and Izzy present, she reflects,
“Already she saw her mistake; this was a private thing, something that should have been kept between them, and by including the Richardsons she had breached a barrier that should not have been broken.” page 97
Which secrets in the novel protect and which harm characters? Sometimes the two are so intertwined that protecting one individual, wrecks havoc upon another.
What secrets have you held to keep others safe that have turned out to be more harmful than helpful? What secrets have you seen exposed that improved a relationship or destroyed one? What secrets do you hold mostly closely? Why?

Point of View

Ng’s narrator is a presence in its own right, asserting commentary such as,
“Mrs. Richard, of course, could not know all of this.” page 236
“Ng doesn’t miss an opportunity to linger over a minor character, even those we meet for only a moment (the neighbor, the doorman, the bailiff) whose voices might otherwise be rendered in parentheses. At the same time, she offers a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of those terrified of losing power. It is a thrillingly democratic use of omniscience.”

How did the narrator enhance or detract from the novel for you? Could the same messages have been carried with a single point of view, for instance solely by Lexie or by Mia? Some authors artfully employ alternating voices such as in Orphan Train or in the five points of view Barbara Kingsolver uses in The Poisonwood Bible. How does the omniscient narrator in Little Fires Everywhere influence your reading of the book? Do you feel closer or more distant from the characters? Do you have a stronger or more muted reaction to the themes? Do you respond more logically or emotionally?

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