Little Fires Everywhere begins with a fire that’s actually pretty big — a concession, it seems, to the demand of contemporary literary agents and editors for a dramatic first sentence. But then, for the rest of Celeste Ng’s novel, nothing happens. There’s a lot of conversations, and people do things they probably shouldn’t and discover long-hidden secrets, but aside from a subplot that doesn’t involve the central characters, not one event occurs that would make the headlines of a community newspaper.
And yet, the novel is engrossing from cover to cover. The characters may lead mundane lives, but Ng makes them memorable. The novel focuses on the Richardson family; Elena and her husband Bill (who the narrator nearly always refers to as Mr. and Mrs. Richardson) are hard-working parents of four high school students, and own a townhouse they rent to an artist, Mia, and her own teenaged daughter. The Richardsons define success through their accomplishments — good paying jobs, athletic victories, admission to Ivy League colleges. Mia hardly fits in their world; her artistic instincts keep her moving throughout the country, never settling in any place any longer than a couple of years while working an assortment of menial jobs. Mia’s daughter becomes involved with each of the Richardson children, and neither family comes out of these meetings the better.
The novel takes place in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, but unlike another novel with a similar setting I recently reviewed, this is one where I actually cared about the characters. Mr. and Mrs. Richardson are decent people who deserve better than what comes to them, and Mia is as engaging as she is enigmatic. It would be easy to portray the Richardson children as pampered and self-centered, and Mia’s child as a victim of her mother’s unconventional career, but Ng instead invests each of her characters with intelligence and empathy. It’s difficult to create an engaging tale around ordinary people who don’t do much, but Ng makes it work.
Hulu is producing an eight-episode adaptation of the novel, and episode one will likely begin with that spectacular fire. Here’s hoping the series has the same focus on characterization as its source.