Review: LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

Monday Reviews

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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publisher: Penguin Press (imprint of Penguin Random House)

publication date: September 12, 2017

9780735224292Some books, like this one, are magic. They succeed on every level, they hit every emotional sweet spot, they do things with words that remind me why writing is such a unique and incredible art form…and I just can’t explain why. This book struck me dumb with awe and gratitude. I finished it over a week ago, now, and I’m still struggling to articulate how much I loved it, because the truth is that I loved it too much for words.

Bear with me, folks.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a lot of things, but it’s especially the story of a place and two families that live there: Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a planned community struggling to cope with the rapidly encroaching mess unpredictability of the outside world; the Richardsons are a big, messy, mostly-happy upper-middle-class white family with deep roots; and mother-daughter pair Mia and Pearl Warren are newcomers no one can quite figure out. When Mia instigates an ugly custody battle between a young Chinese American woman, Bebe Chow, and the wealthy white neighbors who attempt to adopt her baby, May Ling, the community is blown open and family secrets laid bare.

The story isn’t told in order, and opens as the Richardsons’ house burns to the ground around them. From that first page, I was hooked. The closest book I can think to compare it to–though they’re not really similar at all–is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. But where I found Eugenides’ book to be an arch, unpleasant, and chilly allegory for the folly of suburbia, Ng is deeply, warmly concerned with a real suburban community and characters so lifelike they might as well be real people.

I think “realistic” is a quality that can be overrated in fiction, because it’s fiction–why not take the opportunity to create something intricately, beautifully unreal? As long as an author does it well, I’m onboard. But Little Fires Everywhere did remind me of the magic and power of authors who write about the real world and understand real people: what we think like, what we act like, and what we care about. Ng not only understands people, but values them. She treats her characters–most of whom are painfully clueless, some borderline malicious–as if they are all worthy of love and respect. It’s revelatory, especially because Little Fires Everywhere is literary fiction, which is a genre that I think values coldness overmuch and compassion too little.

Every scene, no matter how slight, benefits from this loving characterization. Characters with only few paragraphs devoted to them are still given actions and dialogue that hints at the rich motivation within; central characters we thought we understood are given shake-ups that reveal new and satisfying depths. I particularly loved the (very) minor character of Mr. Yang, a tenant of the Richardsons and downstairs neighbor of the Warrens, and the more central characters of Trip and Moody, teenage Richardson sons who are tender and emotional and defy every dull and tired stereotype of teenage boys.

But of all these characters to fall in love with, my favorite was Mia Warren, whom we discover is a gifted photographer as well as mother and enigmatic drifter. A powerful theme of the book is the process of creation, punishing and healing by turns, whether it’s art-making or motherhood. I cried several times at this book, and each time it was because of that push and pull: the things mothers give up and the things their children give back; the things the children lose that their mothers want to stop them from losing but can’t; the bravery and vulnerability it takes to put art into the world.

I think most of us have at least some idea of what makes a good mother, but novels about visual artists can be especially hit or miss because we can’t see for ourselves whether a canvas or photograph is good or bad or mediocre–the author has to tell us. Thankfully, Ng has a light touch when describing Mia’s talents, trusting the mind’s eye of the reader to fill in the rest.

In fact, it’s been a long time since my mind’s eye felt so engaged in a novel. I was born in ’95 and thus have no memories of the late ’90s, I know nothing about Ohio, and I certainly knew nothing about Shaker Heights, but every scene is so carefully detailed, as lovingly costume-designed and set-dressed as a Wes Anderson movie (though less twee by half), that I felt there.

This absorbing, transporting quality is especially wonderful because Little Fires Everywhere is told in the omniscient 3rd-person, often hopping from mind-to-mind mid-scene, a technique I associate most with epic, impersonal fantasy novels and not with intimate family dramas. It turns out that–at least in Ng’s skilled hands–that mind-hopping can actually make a book more personal and more intimate. We don’t see one side of an argument, we see all of them: a good quality in a book filled with complicated and unwinnable arguments.

I could write a book-length love letter to this book. (Can you tell?) I could especially go on for hours about its razor-sharp critique of the kind of feel-good, orderly white liberalism that crumbles in the face of honest and difficult questions.

But I won’t go on any longer. I’ll just trust that you’ll read Little Fires Everywhere, and tell all your friends, and tell them to tell all of their friends, too. This book is miraculous. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.

My copy of Little Fires Everywhere came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

Monday Reviews

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

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publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

publication date: January 3, 2017

For me, the line between navel-gazing and specificity is drawn (perhaps counterintuitively) between the stories people tell about Ideas, and the stories people tell about People. Fridlund’s debut does not seem overly concerned with nature, or faith, or morality, though it touches on all three; instead, it is wholly preoccupied with its first-person narrator, Linda, and is the better for it. Linda’s story is as hyperreal as a museum, as if each word is cataloged, preserved, and polished, and it’s not a museum of winter, or summer, or Christian Science, or even the history of wolves. It’s something altogether more private and chilling, as functional and sharp as her Swiss Army Knife.

The capital-P People at the center of this novel–Linda especially–are not good, and often not even likable. They are, however, almost hypnotically sympathetic, and it makes the chronicle of the ways in which adults enact terrible harm on children all the more startling.

9780802125873Linda is a quiet, oddball teenager, the kind who could be called queer in the original sense of the word (and maybe the current one, too). She lives in the ruins of a commune with checked-out parents whom she’s not even sure are her parents; her high school history teacher is busted for child pornography and maybe for raping her classmate; a new family that seems mysteriously, intoxicatingly normal moves in across the lake. Linda starts babysitting the young son, Paul, for the young mother, Patra, and for awhile finds herself falling in a kind of love with both. But when it all goes bad, it goes bad fast, pushing Linda further down a path of obsession and isolation.

It’s a setup that seems either like a gritty YA novel or a gritty literary bildungsroman a la Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, but Fridlund skillfully threads the needle with the best of both genres. While the story is not self-consciously told out-of-sequence, it’s not as simple as point A to point B, and we check in frequently with an adult Linda, as if she were telling us her story over coffee or a beer. It keeps the story moving, and keeps it from feeling too awful to be real (something I occasionally felt about White Oleander). It never fully feels like fiction, so we are never fully immunized against its quiet horror.

At first I thought that Fridlund had an axe to grind: against the harshness of the Minnesota northwoods, maybe, or checked-out hippie parents, or pervert teachers, especially after a first chapter about all these things that was as blistering as I’ve ever read. I also thought Fridlund was setting me up for an explosion. What I got was a feeling more akin to locking myself out of my apartment: slow-motion anger and bitterness followed by exhaustion and resolve.

If that makes the book sound unpleasant, let me reframe: for a book that has received as much Important Book buzz as History of Wolves, I was expecting explicit, self-conscious traumas, but Fridlund has accomplished something much more devastating: an expansion of the kind of crazy story you see a few column inches of in a local paper. A teacher busted for child pornography, a former cult that’s rumored to burn children for fun, a completely avoidable family tragedy; I imagine Linda wouldn’t have been interviewed for any of these stories, but she’s been touched–and destroyed–by all of them. You start wondering what sorts of Lindas are behind every headline.

Like Linda, I was raised in the Minnesota northwoods. I spent more time outside than in, more time reading than talking, more time disdaining my peers than trying to understand them. For awhile, I also hopped from odd job to odd job. It’s not hard for me to imagine taking this kind of babysitting gig, and it’s not hard for me to imagine testifying about a family tragedy in court, since I’ve done it. It is hard to imagine a book that could cut me closer to the bone than this one. There is a sense of inevitability, of no escape.

It haunted me because I did escape this sort of life. I’m sure it will find a way to haunt you. History of Wolves is calamitous, and it is not to be missed. 5/5 stars.

My copy of History of Wolves came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.