Celeste Ng ‘s latest novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is a meditation on the unspoken pains and contradictions of motherhood. Its story unspools all the raw, knotted tensions that go into making a family, bursting many a parenting fantasy along the way.
The narrative focuses on the Richardsons — an upper-middle class family of six — and creates a portrait of idyllic 1990s suburbia with a rebellious twist. In the sleepy planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, people live an ordered life amid manicured lawns, picture-perfect high school romances, and Ivy League acceptance letters. But when Mia, a nomadic artist running from a heartbreaking childhood, and her alluringly brilliant daughter, Pearl, arrive in this placid community to lease the Richardsons’ rental property, explosive secrets are suddenly ripe for the telling. Add a culturally charged adoption scandal — one that pits the infant’s Chinese-immigrant birth mother against a wealthy white couple desperate for children of their own — and Shaker Heights may never be the same again.
When we try to turn a concept as huge and multifaceted as motherhood into an ideal, we lose sight of all the complexities of what being a mother actually means.
But choosing a rambling van over a 401(k) isn’t a sign of delinquent parenting in Ng’s universe; it’s just one of a series of possible paths, with its own unique pleasures and pitfalls. And once Mia and Mrs. Richardson’s daughters begin to rebel, each preferring the rival’s brand of mothering over the one in her home, the two women brace for an inevitable collision. Yet as the sticky details of their families start tumbling out — a teen abortion, a broken surrogacy arrangement — Ng never villainizes either woman for the path she’s followed. Loving, Little Fires Everywhere proves, is an imperfect and confusing act, regardless of the circumstances.
“When we try to turn a concept as huge and multifaceted as motherhood into an ideal, we lose sight of all the complexities of what being a mother actually means,” Ng explains. “Anyone who deviates from that platonic and, frankly, largely imagined ideal mother gets criticized and judged: for having a child too young, for having a child too old, for not wanting children, for not being able to have children, for having too many, for undergoing IVF or using a surrogate — the list goes on and on. However you chose to become a mother or choose not to be a mother, you’re already doing it wrong.”
But even as Ng works to lay bare her characters’ errors as parents — their overwhelming fear, their dishonesty, their misunderstanding — we also see that they are equally caught up in a shared devotion to their children. At its core, Ng’s novel resonates as a empathetic exploration of the gray areas moms are rarely allowed, and a glimpse at the tangled and charged “why” behind the decisions they’re so often forced to make.
“The truth is that many women — myself included — have complicated and even contradictory feelings about motherhood,” Ng emphasizes. “It doesn’t serve anyone to pretend motherhood is a uni-faceted concept. One of my goals is to try and create that space for myself and for other writers, and women, who want to acknowledge that.”
Raising and loving a child requires the kind of tenacious fire inside that has the power to bring even the most carefully organized community crashing down. And in this story, the little fires definitely roar.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you’re thinking about kids right now or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it’s time we talked about it that way.
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