“Little Fires Everywhere,” Celeste Ng’s second novel, begins with exactly that: a house ablaze, its every bedroom containing “a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there.”
The finger of blame points at “little lunatic” Izzy Richardson, one of the occupants of the house, now conspicuously AWOL. Also absent, and recently departed, are the Richardsons’ tenants.
Is the malevolent fire-starter an enemy within the Richardson family or without? And is this act of destruction one of meaningless vandalism or purposeful revenge? Ng opens up her drama by backtracking to the previous summer and showing how in the course of a year a series of figurative fires scorched lives and led to that literal inferno.
Elena Richardson has a comfortable and carefully controlled life in Shaker Heights, an affluent, well-ordered suburb of Cleveland. “Happy in captivity,” she has a beautiful house, a loving husband, a steady job as a reporter and four well-educated teenage children. For her, “Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
When itinerant artist and single mother Mia Warren rolls into town with daughter Pearl, Elena, in a show of do-gooding benevolence, lets them stay in her rental house. Soon the Richardsons and the mother-daughter pair mix and match: Elena employs Mia as her housekeeper, while Mia recruits Izzy as her assistant; Lexie Richardson hangs out with Pearl, while Lexie’s brothers fall for Pearl.
But trouble brews. Friends of the Richardsons adopt a Chinese-American baby, and as the town is engulfed and divided by a bitter custody battle, Mia and Elena find themselves pitted against each other.
Once Elena resorts to dirty tactics and desperate measures by digging around in Mia’s past, she unearths secrets that were meant to stay buried and unleashes disastrous events that threaten the sanctity of her perfect world.
As with Ng’s much loved and lauded 2014 debut, “Everything I Never Told You,” this is a novel about class and race, privilege and prejudice, and unraveling family ties. For a while Ng treads water with mildly involving teen antics and suburban strife. However, after characters pick sides, reveal their true colors and clash, we become in thrall to a multilayered, tightly focused and expertly plotted narrative.
Four characters, all female, stand out.
There is Pearl, who is loyal to her mother and acclimatized to the “shifting precariousness” of their lives; Izzy, a combination of oddball, wild child and black sheep; Mia, whose mystique is as appealing as her independent spirit; and Elena, a slave to decorum, yet ruthlessly capable of sniffing out, and stamping out, trouble in paradise.
In places, Ng overdoes her fire-and-flames imagery. This niggle aside, she has crafted a deeply impressive novel with the power to provoke and entrance.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Little Fires Everywhere
By: Celeste Ng.
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 338 pages, $27.
Event: 7 p.m. Sept. 21, Barnes & Noble, Galleria, Edina.