Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Celeste Ng is pretty good evidence in support of reincarnation. How else is it possible she writes so many varied characters with such remarkable insight without having lived their lives and walked in their shoes? Having grown up in the locale of which she writes provided Ng a base of realism, but the character profiles in Little Fires Everywhere are up there with the best I've read, and that's all hard work and talent.

The Richardson family of Shaker Heights, Ohio, is outwardly living a life that exemplifies the Utopian principles established by the town's founders. As part of that sought-after perception, Elena Richardson has historically rented the family's second home in a less perfect part of town to someone she feels is in need. It makes Elena feel good to think she's giving people a helping hand. Most recently, the Winslow Road residence is occupied by Mia Warren, an itinerant artist, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Pearl.

Little Fires Everywhere grabbed me from the get-go with the Richardson home ablaze, thanks, according to Elena, to youngest daughter and Richardson black sheep, Izzy:
It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she'd known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there.

Book titles vary in their actual relation to the text and I appreciated how Ng made hers absolutely relevant on two levels. Following the immediate literal interpretation, Ng goes back in time to explore the many metaphorical fires that burned the Richardson and Warren families and singed those around them. As the characters' lives became increasingly intertwined, new and old secrets mixed with judgment and assumptions, straining their relationships. When prominent family friends of the Richardsons set out to adopt a Chinese-American baby, the ensuing custody battle breaks those already fragile bonds and has far-reaching consequences.

STREET SENSE: Little Fires Everywhere is a brilliant look at broadly important issues (race, culture, privilege) through the lens of two very different families in a small town founded on the premise of perfection. If you're a fan of deep character profiles, this is your jam. All of the characters were well-drawn, but Elena Richardson really grabbed me as one of the most fascinating. That may be because I've known people like her, but the psychology of the self-proclaimed do-gooder is one I find particularly intriguing.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: Mornings, Mrs. Richardson sailed into the kitchen in high-heeled pumps, car keys and stainless-steel travel mug in hand, saying, "Pearl, so nice to see you again." Then she click-clacked down the back hall, and in a moment the garage door rumbled open and her Lexus glided down the driveway, a golden pocket of coolness in the hot summer air. Mr. Richardson, in his jacket and tie, had left long before, but he loomed in the background, solid and impressive and important, like a mountain range on the horizon. When Pearl asked what his parents did all day, Moody had shrugged. "You know, they go to work." Work! When her mother said it, it reeked of drudgery: waiting tables, washing dishes, cleaning floors. But for the Richardsons, it seemed noble: they did important things.

COVER NERD SAYS: This one was so good I already raved about it in the body of the review. A+.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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