Published by Penguin Press on September 12, 2017
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.
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When the Richardsons' friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia's.
Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.
I’m a simple woman: I see a bestselling novel being produced as a TV show, I go buy a copy of that novel and read it before everyone watches it so I can be snooty about how much the book was better on Twitter.
OK, in this case I had had a copy of Little Fires Everywhere on my shelf for a while, but when I saw the Hulu trailer I knew it was time to pull it down and read it. I am not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it – in a good way.
Applicable PopSugar 2020 Prompts: A book that passes the Bechdel test, A book featuring one of the seven deadly sins, A book by a WOC, A book with a three-word title
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
I knew this book was a domestic thriller, and I knew that it was also a courtroom drama. I knew it was on the shorter side, and that was about all I knew. I love a good domestic thriller, and I love it when it’s a book for adults with teenager POVs baked in because I know they’ll have a good feel to them. This had all of that in spades, and then some.
It is the 1990s, and Mrs. Richardson lives in Shaker Heights – an affluent suburb, the crown jewel of mundane suburbia. She has a lawyer husband, and four “Irish twin” children, each one year apart. What she also has is a rental home on the outskirts of Shaker Heights, which she likes to rent to people down on their luck – enter Mia Warren. Mia is a young African-American single mother who is an artist – she travels from place-to-place with her teenage daughter, Pearl – she and Pearl stay somewhere a couple of months, Mia gets some photographs and some good shots, she sends them to her gallery contact in New York, and they move on. But here in Shaker Heights, Mia has promised, she and Pearl will put down roots.
Everything goes well – Mrs. Richardson’s youngest son, Moody, gets along quite well with Pearl, and Mia is even offered a job as a housekeeper for the Richardsons so she can afford to work on her art and photography each afternoon and night, after she prepares their family dinner. Pearl friend zones Moody and only has eyes for the older son, Izzy Richardson (the outcast youngest daughter that Mrs. Richardson gave up on long ago) is taken under Mia’s wing, where she and her combat boots, her artistic eye, are finally appreciated. Having the Warren family in the rental home seems to be working out quite well for everyone. Until the baby.
The McCulloughs can’t have children – though they’ve tried. One day, a two month old baby girl of Chinese descent is dropped off at the Shaker Heights fire station – with a note saying to please take care of her, her name is May Ling Chow. Mrs. McCullough immediately takes the baby in, names her Mirabelle, and she and her husband’s hearts are finally mended. Mia hears about this baby’s adoption, and feels a pit in her stomach – she works part time at the local Chinese restaurant, and her coworker Bebe has told her about the baby she dropped off at the firehouse in a torrent of postpartum depression and despair. Bebe wants her baby back, she’s always told Mia – isn’t it time she finds a way? If Mia accidentally lets it slip that Bebe’s baby might be at the McCullough’s house … who’s to say what could come of that?
The core of Little Fires Everywhere is this court case that does not get enough credit – there is, on one side, a woman who made a mistake, was entrenched in poverty and could not provide for her daughter. But now she can, and she wants a second chance. Who could separate a woman from her baby? And on the other side, the McCullough’s – they can afford everything for this baby girl and they love her like she was their own – but they are white, and through the trial it becomes obvious they are clueless as to how to truly raise a girl of Chinese descent so that she’s able to keep her own cultural roots. What matters more – nature or nurture?
Every character in this book has a different take on it – even the teenagers. And when Mrs. Richardson finds out that Mia might have been the catalyst for this course case (Mrs. Richardson has known Mrs. McCullough since they were little, you see, and she knows how badly the McCulloughs deserve a baby), she puts her journalism chops to the test and digs up some very juicy dirt on Mia Warren. Not everything in Shaker Heights is as perfect as it seems.
The Bottom Line
I need a new tag – “everyone kinda sucks.” Because this is one of those books where that statement is 100% true – everyone in this book kinda sucks. What Mia did in the past sucks, Mrs. Richardson (notice how we almost never see her first name? it fits) sucks because she won’t get her nose out of other people’s business. All of the teenagers suck in that way only teenagers can. Nobody is particularly likeable because everyone (yes, everyone) does at least one action that really makes you sigh and go “ugh I was rooting for you!”
You know, like this.
But even though everyone kind of sucks, some suck in a more villainous way and you still have favorites. Little Izzy is a high school freshman who reminds me of Daria, and I just want to hug her. Poor Bebe Chow, so impoverished she couldn’t afford diapers for her infant but now she can, and doesn’t she deserve that chance? But poor Mrs. McCullough, who had no idea that the fire station baby belonged to anyone else who still wanted her – and she wants her too. There is no “poor Mrs. Richardson,” though – she sucks beyond redeem-ability.
This book felt like a classic Jodi Picoult, in the best way possible. The 1990s setting really helped, because much of this would have played out differently if the teenagers had cell phones. It brings us back to a simpler time (technologically), which I really appreciated and found refreshing. I had initially given this book 4 stars, but I couldn’t find anything I didn’t like about it beyond the fact that everyone is morally grey – and that’s not a criticism on the book at all, but rather it just means that the author is very good at what she is doing. I love it when everyone is morally grey! More of that, please!
I inhaled Little Fires Everywhere, and I think anyone who loves a good family drama will too. It will break your heart and repair it all at once, and it is incessantly quotable. I realize I am very behind in the times not reading it (it won the GoodReads awards back in 2017), but if you haven’t picked it up yet, please do – and buy it before the inevitably TV cover tie-in hits the shelves, if it’s not too late for that.
“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.”
“Most of the time, everyone deserves more than one chance. We all do things we regret now and then. You just have to carry them with you.”
“It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”