Suburban life is often depicted in idyllic terms. A simple Google search returns images of well-arranged neighborhoods, picket fences, and grinning families playing in their front yards. Yet, for all its idyllic imagery, suburban life remains human. In her latest novel, Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng peels back the cookie-cutter façade of a Midwestern suburb to place its humanity on full display.
Welcome to Shaker Heights, Ohio, a neighborhood dating back to 1909, its formative influence rooted in a community of Shakers. One of its earliest mottos was “Most communities just happen; the best are planned,” a philosophy woven deeply into the fabric of its residents. And Ng would know having grown up in Shaker Heights herself.
Set in the late ’90s, Little Fires Everywhere introduces readers to the Richardson family, especially the mother Elena and her four children. Elena typifies the philosophical heartbeat of the community. Committed to planning and rules, she holds her passions captive and lives by a carefully maintained structure believing that doing so will spare her and her family from unpleasant or disastrous circumstances. For Elena, “Rules existed for a reason; if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
In addition to their family home, the Richardsons own a secondary property in Shaker Heights that they rent out to less fortunate tenants. When Mia, a single mother to her daughter Pearl, answers an advertisement for the top floor of the home, the two become the newest residents of the neighborhood. Though their presence brings with it a lifestyle difference that kindles subtle tensions in the community, especially with Elena. Mia lacks roots, lives by spontaneity, and ascribes to a bohemian non-conformist way of life. Naturally, this upsets the Richardsons’ structure as well as that of Shaker Heights itself.
Ng introduces these tensions to explore the impact of motherhood and adoption as well as the often-masked divisions of class and race among suburban life. While strewn throughout the book, these themes come to a head when a local white couple attempts to adopt a Chinese American baby abandoned at a city fire department. When the child’s birth mother seeks to legally regain her child, it sets off a citywide debate over who is best suited for parenthood.
Perhaps more than any other author writing today, Ng has the uncanny ability of peering inside the minds of otherwise “boring” subject matter. Though, to be fair, there is plenty of material to draw from.
Prior to World War II, suburbanization occurred on a smaller scale, often the result of pushing undesirable professions to the periphery of city life, such as slaughterhouses, soap-makers, and even prostitution. However, it spread at a blazing pace during the prosperous postwar economy and as a result of technological advances in transportation, commercial business, and residential areas like the “Levittowns.”
The increase in leisure time as well as the visibility of front yards created the “keeping up with the Joneses” phenomenon and cultivated accelerated forms of neighborhood gossip. Suburbanization also has a well-documented history of division despite its utopian-like allure, one alive and well during the time period of Little Fires Everywhere.
Strangely, religion is notably absent from the novel. Despite the faith-driven founding of Shaker Heights, Ng left void what is typically a staple among suburban life. Whether or not it was a conscious decision on her part, the absence of faith rendered unexplored an aspect of community in what is otherwise a nuanced book.
While Little Fires Everywhere offers fodder for discussion on a number of important topics, at its heart the novel is a warning for the danger of trusting in rules to save you. One might even say that rules are the religion of the story. But rather than inspiring enduring heart change, rules mask the problem in simplicity. For Elena, it comes down to choice. When confronted with a moral dilemma of one of her neighbors, she thinks, “I would never have let myself get into that situation. . . . I would have made better choices along the way.”
Even if that were true (and it’s not), we cannot control the choices of those around us. Ng’s novel illustrates how our unchallenged assumptions can create our conclusions. As one of her characters reflects, rules “implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.” Rules are a helpful guide for restraining and directing communities, but they are also sparks among the tinderbox of relationships.
Life is more than the sum of our choices. And if we can take away anything from Ng’s latest, it is this—rules make for feeble gods.
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Building Your Bookshelf
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik
A girls getaway gone wrong. Every year, Winifred Allen and her three best friends take a trip together. This year, they decide on a rafting tour through the rugged wilderness of Western Maine. After a day on the water, the girls are stranded unexpectedly and left to figure out how to find their way home with few provisions and no means of communication. The River at Night is a simple but invigorating thriller.
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
Tom Barren is from the world we were supposed to have, the one in which the sci-fi tales of the ’50s and ’60s came true. For him, it’s 2016, but his world is filled with hovercrafts, intricate skywalks, and, of course, time travel—all of it made possible thanks to Lionel Goettreider’s 1965 invention of the Goettreider Engine, which converts the gravitational pull of the Earth’s rotation into an inexhaustible source of clean energy. While traveling back in time to witness this invention, Tom accidentally alters the course of history and ends up creating our 2016. All Our Wrong Todays is a smart and often funny novel that leaves you asking if we’re really better off with the future in our hands.
The Locals by Jonathan Dee
Spanning the course of a decade, The Locals explores the shifts in small-town America following 9/11. Set in the fictional community of Howland, Massachusetts, the novel follows Mark Fitcher, a local contractor and the unwitting victim of a conman. Weeks after the attack, Philip Hadi, an affluent wealth manager and native of New York, moves his family to Howland and hires Firth to update his home with extensive security measures upon receiving word from a source about further threats to the US. As his influence spreads throughout the town, Dee deftly captures the change of place over time through fluctuating socioeconomic status, shifting democratic values, and the loss of neighborly care.
Cover image by Dan Freeman.
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