Review of Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

ShakerHeightsHS

Despite inept plotting & narration, as well as clichéd characters (Izzy struck me as a transgendered Holden Caulfield—Speaking Truth to Phonies—Little Fires Everywhere was unputdownable. I had to find out the outcome of the custody case, which was indeed the most perplexing since Solomon ordered the baby cut in half. (I’d not have wanted either contestant for a mother.) I recalled two much publicized such custody stories then in the news, one involving birth parents changing their minds on adoption and the other a surrogate who kept the baby, so by the middle of the novel the coins dropped for the plot. This is one of those books where the setting is a major character, but here it is the sheer blandness of Shaker Heights that overwhelms the reader. In Mrs. Richardson (the married title is essential to her nature) Celeste Ng presents both totally controlled banality & consummate evil. Fortunately neither Mrs. Richardson’s contrivances to get Mia’s backstory (which was absolutely no business of hers even though she’s Mia’s landlady) under false pretenses nor attempt to uncover the records of an abortion clinic are believable in real life. Actually, the notion of a reporter (who thinks she’s a “journalist”) for a suburban rag who specializes in town council and zoning commission meetings attempting a Woodstein to ruin her tenant who’s not even a party in her friend’s child-custody affair ought to be comic, but I found it clumsy. The narration also seemed very intrusive. We get snatches of dialogue, but then the omniscient narrator comes in and explains what they were really talking about, sometimes projecting what they would feel in a future that is otherwise totally opaque. (Are Izzy & Pearl being set up for a sequel?) The teen characters felt straight out of a YA where teens are always more sensitive than the grown-ups tho’ both the toothpick in the locks prank and the alcoholic (& racist) teacher’s bathroom accident struck me a puerile and silly. Maybe this is actually a work of “literary fiction” & what I thought ham-fisted narrative & plotting are supposed to be “postmodern self-referentiality” or the like. Yet the story of Mia’s discovery of her talent for photography & her art school career was told excellently; Celeste Ng has a true gift for making technical subjects accessible to lay readers (& I hope I can do the same with Latin grammar). So there are perhaps four different novels in this one book. (1) Mia’s backstory—a Portrait of the Photag as a Young Woman; (2) a YA with teen friendships, jealousy, sex, abortion, school pranks—sorta John Green on nasty pills; (3) a domestic saga (being of the male persuasion I don’t use the terms “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction” to characterize genres I enjoy) involving adoption, surrogacy & parent vs. child conflict, & (4) a satire on a suburban matron turned cat-fighter who thinks she’s an investigative reporter but is really just a nasty snoop. The 1st deserves 5 stars, the 4th gets 2 at most. Let’s round off at 4 then.

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