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The Richardson family is proud to be residents of Shaker Heights, a wealthy community with historic roots. When Mrs. Richardson, mother of four teenagers, rents an apartment to the artist Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, she believes that she has made a philanthropic gesture. What she has truly brought to Shaker Heights, however, is Mia Warren’s entirely different way of life — and motherhood — that contrasts sharply with her own.
The complexities of motherhood — and the question of what makes a good mother — are at the heart of Celeste Ng’s tender, intelligent, and empathetic new novel Little Fires Everywhere.
Mia and her daughter are nomads, migrating every few months as Mia takes odd jobs to support the pair and enable the wholehearted pursuit of her art. In sharp contrast is Mrs. Richardson (referred to almost exclusively by her married title) who grew up in Shaker Heights, departing only for college before settling back into a life of stability and middle class affluence. That the rules she has lived by could be so blatantly disregarded astonishes Mrs. Richardson, who views her new tenant with a mixture of awe, pity, and mistrust.
“A part of her wanted to study Mia like an anthropologist, to understand why — and how — she did what she did. Another part of her — though she was only vaguely aware of it at that moment — was uneasy, wanted to keep an eye on Mia, as you might keep your eye on a dangerous beast.”
The fascination with alternative lifestyles surfaces repeatedly as the children of the two families interact. Mia and Pearl’s immaterialistic life, where they gather bare necessities from thrift stores and street corners, fascinates the Richardson children, who are each drawn to the warmth and kindness of Mia’s home. Pearl, in turn, falls instantly for the stability and comfort of the Richardson house, marveling at the deep roots that connect the family members to each other and their community. This sudden intimacy between the families breeds a voyeuristic curiosity in both mothers, who quietly observe — and judge — each other.
The true battle between Mia and Mrs. Richardson takes place, not in their own homes, but through the lens of a controversial adoption that rattles Shaker Heights and places the women on opposing sides. As the case unfolds, issues of race, class, and single motherhood are tried alongside the arguments of the birth mother and the adoptive parents. In this desperate setting, Mia and Mrs. Richardson’s worldviews openly clash, and the definition of motherhood is dissected on the public stage.
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere offers a poignant look at one of the most powerful, primal, and passionate relationships that humans can experience: motherhood. In her exploration, however, Ng is consistently gentle and even-handed, refusing to pass judgement on any character’s relationship with motherhood. This empathy and tenderness captures the complexity of motherhood without defining it, instead depicting how profoundly our idea of motherhood — and what makes a good mother — shapes our relationships with our families and communities.
Looking for something else to read? Check out last month’s The Reader’s View on Angelica Baker’s Our Little Racket.