Review: Little Fires Everywhere

2 STARS

2017, Celeste Ng

 

But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they 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.

One of the biggest books of the last couple of years, winner of the Goodreads Choice Award 2017 in the category ‘Fiction’, this novel tells the tale of the conflict between Mrs Richardson – a mishmash of every ‘suburban mom’ stereotype out there – and Mia, her enigmatic artistic tenant, set against the background of their children’s relationships and a legal case about the custody of a Chinese baby, abandoned by her mother and adopted to rich white parents, who have longed for a child for many long miscarriage-ridden years. Now Bebe wants her baby back, and battle lines are drawn, and the reader must make up their mind about how they feel.

Which is all very well, except that the reader isn’t allowed to freely make up their mind about the various conflicts in the novel. My main problem with this book is its didactic enterprise to force the reader to view events through the opinions of the author. It’s made very obvious throughout how the author wants the reader to feel. Mia is the good character, Mrs Richardson the bad, whose only hope of redemption is to learn from Mia and her free-spirited life, the opposite of Mrs Richardson’s comfortable suburban existence, which is, of course, a simply terrible fate.

“It bothers you, doesn’t it?” Mia said suddenly. “I think you can’t imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life from the one you’ve got. Why anyone might want something other than a big house with a big lawn, a fancy care, a job in an office. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose.” Now it was her turn to study Mrs Richardson, as if the key to understanding her were coded in her face. “It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.”

The central argument of the novel is that playing by the rules – whether legal or societal – is repressive, and true happiness and freedom is found in (to use a well-known phrase) following your heart, however messily this turn out. Which is, put like that, something that I personally agree with. Who wouldn’t? But when the point is hammered home again and again – through a never-ending series of lyrical metaphors, birds in cages and fires inside houses – it becomes tiresome. It’s uncomfortable to be told how to feel. It put me off the book and almost made me want to rebel against the author’s tyranny over my opinions… which is exactly what happened. I ended up harbouring a surly dislike for Mia and feeling a sympathy for Mrs Richardson. If the story had been handled more skilfully, perhaps I would have felt differently.

For me, a lot of the fault of this book lay in its over-use of tired old stereotypes. Take this quotation:

What she had felt for Jamie back then had been just a tiny, passing flame. All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks leapt like fleas and spread as rapidly; a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame… Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity… This philosophy had carried her through life and, she had always felt, had served her quite well. Of course she’d had to give up a few things here and there. But she had a beautiful house, a steady job, a loving husband, a brood of healthy and happy children; surely that was worth the trade. Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.

The fact that it’s well-written (albeit very verbosely) and smothered in the extended fire metaphor doesn’t hide the fact that this is the same old ‘materialistic suburban white mom realises there’s More To Life but is too scared/repressed to Follow Her Dreams’ stereotype that has been seen countless times – not just in books and films – it’s a stereotype that seems embedded in modern developed world culture. For me, it’s tired.

But that was Mia, wasn’t it? A woman who took an almost perverse pleasure in flaunting the normal order… She didn’t care, Mrs Richardson realized, what people thought of her. In a way, that made her dangerous. She thought suddenly of the photography she’d seen at Mia’s house that first day… The woman turned arachnid, all silent, stealthy arms. What kind of person, she thought, would transform a woman into a spider? What kind of person, for that matter, saw a woman and even thought spider?

The May Ling-Mirabelle storyline was original and interesting, but once again, I felt as though the reader’s opinions were being encouraged too strongly in one direction. The case was fascinating precisely because it’s the sort of dilemma to which there’s no right answer. The novel would have done so much better if it had embraced this subtlety. The moments when sympathy was shown to both sides of the argument were the best moments of the book.

I found Ng’s writing style to be too in-depth, with far too much telling rather than showing. Very often, Ng sidestepped the plot for a page to info-dump, and even when this info-dumping was written in a poetical way, it still came across as though she couldn’t think of a better way to communicate the information to the reader. I struggled to understand Izzy, especially her relationship to Mia, primarily because we are told, rather than shown, that these two ‘spend a lot of time together and become close’.

I also didn’t get much of a sense of character for Pearl or Mia. I know what actions they took and their role in the plot, but, for me, the test of whether a character is well-written is to try and imagine the character outside the story. A well-written character should stand in the reader’s imagination independently to the plot; we should be able to think “If X was here right now, what would they do or say? If they were put into this or that situation, what would they do?” I don’t have the first clue what Pearl or Mia would do in any situation. Mia is characterised as a stereotypical free-spirited artist with a side order of a calm inner peace (symptomatic of her being on the Right Path). Pearl is characterised by loving her amazing mother, being smart, and liking boys, which isn’t really enough.

Little Fires Everywhere had its strong points – its writing was beautiful at times, it dealt with interesting current issues, it managed to incorporate various different plotlines into one big overarching story, it had insightful things to say about motherhood. One thing I did like about this novel was the photography element; I found it original and a good way of learning more about characters through Mia’s lens. However, for me there was just too much overt moralising. Even when I might have agreed with what was being argued, I didn’t appreciate it being shoved down my throat.

The novel dealt with big problems, some of which we all face in our time, others which some unfortunately have no choice but to face: whether to keep a child, which life path to follow, how to respond to abhorrent views in a productive way, abortion, betraying a friend or a brother. It’s frustrating to think how much better this book could have been if it was all handled more skilfully – if judgement was reserved for the reader, not the author – and if the plotlines didn’t rely so heavily on tired old stereotypes.

What would she have done if she’d been in that situation? Mrs Richardson would ask herself this question over and over, before Michael’s call and for weeks – and months – after. Each time, faced with this impossible choice, she came to the same conclusion. I would never have let myself get into that situation, she told herself. I would have made better choices along the way.

In fact, it seems to me rather ironic that a novel which encourages its readers, like Mia tries to encourage Mrs Richardson, to question and push through the boundaries in their life, and criticises them for ‘staying inside the lines’, should in fact require its readers to ‘stay inside the lines’ themselves, and feel exactly what the author wants them to feel.

Read 23-28 August 2018

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