The rent on the duplex apartment was irresistibly affordable, even for an under-the-radar artist raising a teenage daughter alone. The community was affluent, its school system exceptional, and if there was a whiff of condescension about the landlady, Elena Richardson — an aggressive do-gooder who kept the rent modest for deserving members of the lower classes — it was nothing Mia Warren couldn’t handle.
So she moved in with her only child, sweet overachieving Pearl, and for the first time in Pearl’s 15 years, the peripatetic Mia promised they would stay. In self-consciously progressive, deeply conformist Shaker Heights, Ohio, these misfits were going to put down roots.
“Little Fires Everywhere,” Celeste Ng’s delectable and engrossing second novel, unfolds in flashback over not quite a year. On the Saturday morning when the tale begins, the Warrens have just left, quietly in the night. Across town, someone has set Mrs. Richardson’s own home ablaze.
Of the four children in the almost picture-perfect Richardson family, the youngest has always been strange. As her parents and siblings gather outside, watching their idyllic six-bedroom burn nearly to the ground, the perennially disaffected Izzy is the only person who they can imagine would do such a thing. She’s also the only Richardson who’s missing, not that any of them seems much bothered by that.
Ng, who lives in Cambridge, opened her first novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” with another familial tragedy: the death of a teenage girl. But no one is killed or even injured in the Richardsons’s conflagration, and they clearly have money to cushion the material blow. So it feels right that the news of their disaster comes to us in a tone of gossipy effervescence, which draws us close and keeps us there. “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”
Mia and Pearl, Mrs. Richardson and Izzy: These are the central characters in a complex and compulsively readable suburban saga that is deeply invested in mothers and daughters — though Mrs. Richardson (and yes, please do call her Mrs.; marital status isn’t everything to her, but she didn’t land a lawyer husband for nothing) would blanch if she knew she were starring in a story alongside her least favorite child. Surely her golden daughter, Lexie, her charming elder son, Trip, or her tenderhearted boy, Moody, would be better measures of her motherhood?
Ng (her fabulous Twitter handle preemptively explains how to say it: @pronounced_ing) sets “Little Fires Everywhere” in the late 1990s. Issues that were heatedly controversial back then — surrogacy, abortion, cross-cultural adoption — become plot strands, part of the novel’s pulsing life force. So, in its way, does the ostensibly postfeminist cultural moment we were having then: You can feel the women and girls bumping up against unacknowledged walls that circumscribe their lives — above all, an expectation of moral perfection that has everything to do with a feminine ideal and nothing to do with the unavoidably compromising messiness of survival.
Richly imagined and teeming with secrets, the novel ultimately involves a showdown between Mrs. Richardson, an alpha burgher quietly frustrated with her piddling career as a reporter for the local weekly, and Mia, a photographer who has found a way, poverty notwithstanding, to keep creating the art that is her passion. Pearl, who makes a best friend in Moody, fantasizes about being a Richardson kid, while Izzy longs poignantly for Mia’s mothering touch.
In lesser hands, such a scenario might devolve into a catfight, and Ng, who grew up partly in Shaker Heights, does let events teeter into satire when Mrs. Richardson becomes consumed to the point of derangement with the desire to dig up dirt on Mia’s past. Ng has less sympathy for Mrs. Richardson than for the rest of her characters; when she tries to redeem her at book’s end, it comes off as pat.
But Ng feels deeply for the others, never more acutely than when a child-custody battle erupts between friends of the Richardsons — a wealthy, white couple raising an Asian-American baby — and Mia’s friend Bebe, a struggling Chinese immigrant who abandoned her daughter in a moment of postpartum despair. The media-circus case captures Ng’s Shaker Heights in microcosm and much of the larger culture, too: the eagerness to paint poverty as moral failure and cast a loving mother as unfit, the reflexive tendency to view whiteness as the norm and matrimony as a marker of worthiness.
What Ng has written, in this thoroughly entertaining novel, is a pointed and persuasive social critique, teasing out the myriad forms of privilege and predation that stand between so many people and their achievement of the American dream. But there is a heartening optimism, too. This is a book that believes in the transformative powers of art and genuine kindness — and in the promise of new growth, even after devastation, even after everything has turned to ash.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE
By Celeste Ng
Penguin, 352 pp., $27
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.