The setting of Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is Shaker Heights, the storied Cleveland suburb where every blade of grass knows its place and every home is a shelter for lives of advantage and entitlement. The home of the Richardsons is one of just these, a stately manse where Elena Richardson, a reporter for the city’s smaller newspaper, lives with her lawyer husband and her four children: the dashing athlete Trip, the effortlessly beautiful Lexie, the artistic Moody, and the rebellious Izzy. Life is good for the Richardsons, the wealth of past generations accruing in the ease of the present one. Elena, herself a child of Shaker Heights, takes pride in raising another generation there, her brood beautiful and talented and confident in futures lubricated by ease and plenty and the good fortune bestowed by those who came before.
It is onto this well-ordered stage that Ng’s protagonist, Mia Warren, enters. If Shaker Heights stands for the stolid respect for convention, Warren has lived a life of thwarting it, restlessly moving from state to state with her teenage daughter, Pearl, in tow. If the Richardsons bow to the gods of convention and upper-middle-class restraint, Mia worships at the altar of art. A talented photographer, she takes on makeshift jobs, cleaning houses and waiting tables so that her days are free to pursue her photographic ambitions. If the carefully coiffed Elena is a somewhat mediocre reporter stuck at the less-than-best newspaper, Mia is gifted, her mesmerizing and haunting photographs selling at galleries in New York. Seemingly uninterested in either fame or fortune, she sells only a few, prioritizing authenticity of expression over ease of existence.
The lives of the two women collide when Mia rents a house that belongs to the Richardsons. The Winslow property (an oddity in rental-less Shaker Heights) is an inheritance whose rental income Elena doesn’t really need. She uses it as a means of padding her altruism — “helping” the less fortunate and, in the instant case, the picturesquely artistic. Before long, the lives of the Richardson brood are intertwined with those of Mia and Pearl. Following a landlady visit of sorts, during which Elena bestows much condescension on Mia’s work in process (“You should really do portraits”), the latter ends up cleaning the Richardson home in exchange for rent. It permits her to keep an eye on Pearl, who, besotted with plenty and regularity (and the elder Richardson son), spends all her afternoons at their house. As the plot progresses, the youngest Richardson child, the rebellious Izzy, becomes equally besotted by Mia’s artistry, making her way in the opposite direction to watch Mia wield her photographic craft.
The intertwining of the families, two contrasting models of motherhood equally possible in contemporary America, sets up the conflict that will drive them apart. Motherhood again is the fulcrum on which it turns. At the Chinese restaurant where she works, Mia befriends Bei Bei Chow, a young Chinese immigrant woman. Bei Bei, she learns, is in the grip of maternal tragedy that began when, bereft and nearly starving, she left her daughter at a fire station in Shaker Heights. She had meant to retrieve the child later, but when she tried to do so the baby was gone.
The baby is not gone. Mei Ling is now Mirabelle McCullough, the newly adopted and much adored adopted child of the McCulloughs, wealthy longtime friends of the Richardsons who had everything — except, of course, a baby. A custody battle ensues, with Mia and Elena staked out on opposing sides and much of Shaker Heights glued to its details. Ng’s narrative unfolds the disparate worlds within the apparent harmony of the community, with the needs of the Chinese immigrant who dishes up their takeout painfully colliding with the wants of the couple who lack only a baby. With the exposition comes the unraveling, the unspooling of the lies and subterfuge that shield the cossetted constituents of Shaker Heights. Nobody likes it.
In this, the central action of Little Fires Everywhere, Ng is masterful, exposing with terrifying acuity just how the well-meaning wealthy, afforded so much moral reverence in contemporary America, can be cruel and even evil. In underscoring how equipped she is to handle a Chinese baby, Mrs. McCullough points to the Chinese art on her walls and the fact that the baby “loves rice” and that in fact “it was her first solid food.” Consumption is not just a metaphor here; it is the sum total of her understanding of culture and identity and of the fact that she who has everything is entitled to still more, even to a baby to complete the picture of perfection.
Bei Bei Chow’s story, framed in Ng’s gripping fiction, is close to an actual one that took place in Indiana, a few hours’ drive away from Cleveland and Shaker Heights. In that case, a young Chinese immigrant, Bei Bei Shuai, was charged with murdering her newborn baby in March 2011. Shuai, who had fallen in love with a Chinese man who left her when she became pregnant, had tried to kill herself by ingesting rat poison. While Shuai survived, the baby died two days after it was born. Shuai became the first woman to be prosecuted for a suicide attempt, under Indiana’s feticide statute, originally enacted to protect women and their children from third parties such as abusive boyfriends and husbands.
The actual Shuai case was just as divisive as the one Ng presents, with the poor immigrant woman being denigrated as a baby killer and an unfit mother. Non-immigrant others, such as Shuai’s lawyer, were threatened with baseless disciplinary actions for trying to raise money for her client. The question of who qualifies as a good mother, along with the idea that the state or the wealthy and the white must protect immigrant children from the cruelties of their unfit immigrant parents, are issues woven through Little Fires Everywhere. In the Shaker Heights of the novel, cultural and racial identity is only incidental — something to be overcome, as Lexie Richardson’s black boyfriend and Asian best friend seem to be doing by ascending class. “Mothers like her keep the cycle of poverty going,” the same boyfriend reports his father as having said. Belonging with the white and wealthy requires shedding contrary opinions, lining up dutifully with the Richardsons and the McCulloughs.
The magic and mastery of fiction lies in its ability to extract the truths that are otherwise lost in the chaos of life, the details and rationalizations that cover them up, subtracting their sting. Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere does just that, isolating and teasing out the threads of class conformity, racist fear, and the hierarchies and codes that partake subtly of both. Little fires have become a conflagration by the end of the book: the Richardsons’ home is burned to a husk; the McCulloughs’ baby is missing, as is the Richardsons’ own youngest child; Mia and Pearl have left for another town. In real life, devastation is almost routinely the fate of the far less endowed, the Bei Bei Shuais and the Mia Warrens. Fiction, at least, can offer up its own kinds of justice.