Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Celeste Ng’s uncovering of the injustices in America

sravya balasa ♂
4 min readDec 20, 2020

Little Fires Everywhere is the first of two Celeste Ng novels I have had the pleasure of reading and both times I have been blessed by Ng’s gift to craft plotlines so detailed, so vivid, you forget that the tears streaming down your face are for fictional characters. It is a vivid story about two small-town families whose lives quickly become intertwined. Seemingly unproblematic and lighthearted initially, the book escalates quickly, with the heavy topics of motherhood, race, classism, culture, sex, and making your own story underlying every word. A must-read.

Little Fires Everywhere Book Cover

This novel’s story is centered in a realistic depiction of Shaker Heights, Ohio, where Ng herself grew up, to allow her readers to see the freedom and community she loved in the town while shedding light on its idiosyncrasies. She paints Shaker as “Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shakers had lived it so strongly it had seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up there with a propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws” (Little Fires Everywhere, 23),

First, we meet the Richardson family. Elena Richardson, a third-generation resident of Shaker Heights and writer for the paper, has four children, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy, and is married to Bill. They are the quintessential Shaker family: wealthy, stable, aloof, white, and with something reminiscent of a god-complex. Next, we’re introduced to the Warren family, which is much of the opposite. We have Mia Warren, a talented photographer, and her high-school-age daughter Pearl Warren. They could not be more different than the Richardson family; they live an almost nomadic lifestyle, own minimal possessions, are black, and have a close mother-daughter bond.

On the arrival of the Warren family to Shaker Heights, Elena takes joy in being able to rent out a house to the Warren family, introduce Pearl to her children, and provide Mia with a job taking care of her house. Mia and Pearl settle in, with Mia working to take care of the Richardson children at Elena’s insistence and Pearl becoming their friends (or more). To Pearl, the Richardson family is perfection, as she cannot believe “that the Richardsons must have arranged themselves into a tableau for her enjoyment, for surely they could not always exist in this state of domestic perfection” (Little Fires Everywhere, 33). It comes as no surprise then that to Elena, fixing the “imperfect” Warren family is a personal project to keep the Shaker community at perfection. Little does she know, the Warren family, specifically Mia, was not built for arbitrary rules.

The cusp of the novel occurs when we are introduced to the McCullough family made up of Linda and Mark, a white Shaker family that is long-time friends of the Richardsons. Linda’s infertility leads them to adopt a Chinese-American baby, as they have longed for a child for years. The transracial adoption, questions about the real mother, and Mia and Elena’s split sides are some of the few factors that plague a harrowing custody battle in Shaker Heights. Here, Ng turns up the heat with tensions arising between the Richardson children and Pearl, Mia and Elena, Elena and Bill, and more, tensions that could burst into flames with any extra fuel. As we see in the novel summary, “Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.”

Throughout the novel, Ng writes with alternate POVs to understand the background of each of our characters. By giving us the space to understand every character, we are torn by our feelings; one second we are angry at Elena, the next at Mia, then Lexie, then Pearl. Who should we actually be angry at? Whose fault is the injustices that occur throughout the novel? These questions plague us from Lexie’s offhand comments like “Skin color doesn’t say anything about who you are” to “I mean, we’re lucky. No one sees race [in Shaker]” (Little Fires Everywhere, 42). Ng paints a picture of a problematic American society, where no singular person is the root cause of all problems, but instead, the fact that we are all brought up with clashing beliefs, unable to see another side, ends up in destruction.

In the end, Little Fires Everywhere is nothing short of a fictional masterpiece. The story of the Richardson family and Warren family has twists and turns that no one expects. However, it was not just Ng’s fictional prowess that made me rate this book 5 stars. It was her ability to bring in politically charged topics avoided at dinner table conversation and in political debates in a digestible manner that leaves it difficult to argue that injustice in America is ever-present in our society.



sravya balasa ♂

cs, design @ ucsd. intern @instagram @viasat @salesforce. lover of outreach and dogs!