Thursday, July 16, 2020

Celeste Ng - Little Fires Everywhere

Publisher: Penguin
Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng

The world is marked with diversity.  There are different races, religions, physical characteristics, wealth, health and culture. Maybe in certain pockets of the world people grow up with a very insular view of the world. They don't know of life as it is beyond their narrow ken. There are people, well educated and well versed in the ways of the world who know about the diversity on offer. On face of things, they may say, they are cool with people who are different. Yet they may not like the idea of the others invading their lives. It is only when their worlds collide that they realize how uncomfortable they are with the others.

Little Fires Everywhere is a tale of one such collision. Shaker Heights is a place where diversity is welcomed. It has spacious lawns, vegetable growing is forbidden, overgrown grass is forbidden, each house has a tree in the front, no garbage bins are visible. It is a perfectly planned neighborhood which was established in 1912. Elena Richardson's family lived here forever. It was the center of her ambitions and dreams. She gave up a career as a journalist to work for a small local paper. She brought her college sweetheart back with her to live in Shaker and raise a family. Hers is a perfect suburban dream come true. A beautiful house in a prosperous neighborhood, four children, a successful husband.

Elena also owns a duplex house a little way off which she rents out. Into this rental walks Mia Warren and brings disturbance in her wake. Mia is an itinerant artist. Her primary medium is photography. She never stays for long in one place but now she wants to settle down. She has a young daughter, Pearl, who needs steady schooling. This kind of a makeshift life is something alien to Elena. In her mind, she is supporting a poor struggling artist. So far, things are fine. Mia lives in her own house, Elena is secure in hers.

Elena has four children in various stages of High School.  Moody is the one who is the same age as Pearl, Mia's daughter. He makes friends with her and brings her into his house. So far Pearl has lived a nomadic life which has been full of makeshift or patch up solutions. With Mia, she slept in their car or a single room studio where she had to share a mattress with her mother. Now she walks into this large six bedroom mansion with manicured lawn. She is wowed by the splendor and begins to spend her time with the Richardson kids.

Mia is a little bothered by the influence the rich kids have on her smart daughter and takes up on Elena's offer to do a little housekeeping for them. Elena's youngest, Izzy is fifteen years old and seen as a problem child. Izzy finds Mia sympathetic and opens up to her. The kids are all facing the usual teenage angst, relationships, some mild resentments towards their parents. Into this mix comes the curious case of the McCullough's adopted baby when the baby's biological mother, Bebe Chow, demands her daughter back. Shaker Heights is shaken by the trial and takes fierce sides. Families are split over their opinion over the rights of the mother versus the rights of the McCullough family.

At the heart of the novel is the differences between the life choices of Elena and Mia. They are different but Elena cannot swallow the path Mia has taken in her life. In her view, Mia has done wrong and should be corrected. Mia stands by her choices and richer life it has given her. She compares Elena's life to a birdcage. Also woven into the narrative is the question of who has the right over a child, a poor, loving biological parent or a rich, loving provider. Mia's daughter is pretty, sorted and clever. Elena's children are also good children, good at studies and games. Elena's children will probably have an easier path to a better life because of the support their rich parents can give them, while Mia may have to struggle with things.

The novel goes down smoothly. It is beautifully described. It does carry a message but the message is subtly delivered. Elena is not painted as a villain except for a couple of times that she does questionable things. The differences in the way of life of Bebe, Mia and Elena are vast. In fact, Bebe and Elena are at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  I loved the way Ng handled the timeline of the novel, the way she introduced the characters and handled their interactions with each other, the way the story progresses and the way it ends. The book is very interesting and I could barely put it down.

I also happened to see the television 8 part miniseries based on this book by the same name. Reese Witherspoon plays Elena and Kerry Washington is Mia. I found the series quite gripping and binge-watched it in one day. There are differences in the narrative from the book. Sometimes the series expands on something said in the book, most notably when we are given a couple of lovely poems written by Pearl. The book says Pearl writes poetry but we were not given any samples to read. Elena's backstory was given as much prominence as Mia's in the TV version, unlike the book. Also the shading of the character was more prominent in the series than in the book. The end was slightly altered. The acting of the seniors was good, a little too much in the face though. There are a total of five children in the book, Elena has four and Mia has one. All the kids turned in a stupendous performance; very natural. The face offs between in Elena and Mia were heightened and increased in the series, they were subtle and few in the book. In fact the tone of the book was far more subtle than it was in the series. The racial friction was highlighted in the series whereas in the book Mia's race is never brought into question.

Notwithstanding all these differences, they hold their place. We all know the audio-visual medium is more dramatic than books. I would choose to read the book any day though. It shook me up and awakened me to the subtle ways in which disparity is dealt with in life.

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