My wife and I have a Christmas tradition. It started when we were dating but has become so much better after getting married. Every year, on Christmas Eve, we give each other a book, the goal being to spend most of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day relaxing, enjoying time with family, and delving into a good story.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng was the book I read this year. And I am very glad it was.
Much has been said about this book, much has been praised about it. After all, it is now a Hulu series! I don’t know if that series is any good or highly praised, but I know the book is one of the few blockbusters to come from the publishing industry in modern years. I think it deserves its reputation, but, like all stories, it isn’t perfect.
The plot should have been a weak point for me. After all, it is pretty slow. When you pause to take a break while reading this, maybe you take a sip of coffee and reflect, you realize that not much has happened.
Based around a small community outside Cleveland, Ohio, this book is about an artistic single mother who moves in and tosses the community upside down. But she does it without doing a whole lot. There aren’t huge fight scenes. There aren’t moments of supreme tension and drama. Really, if I showed you this plot on an outline, you might think it pretty boring. And, I guess, to some people it might be.
But the plot was my favorite part of this story.
Normally, and this is probably a fault of mine, fiction doesn’t make me think. I read a lot of nonfiction as well as fiction, so I treat fiction as a way to zone out, relax, and enjoy a story. I’m not looking for my novels to teach me anything or make me examine things thoughtfully. If they do, great, but that isn’t necessarily what I’m looking for. This book made me consider questions of race, ethics, and community in an entertaining and engaging way. The characters are faced with a conundrum that they all must take a side on and you, as the reader, are placed in the same situation. Which side will you choose? That was a fascinating part of this plot that made me love it.
Ng’s characters in Little Fires Everywhere might be a little thin, but not in a way that significantly hurts the story. I’ve seen other reviewers say that the characters feel one-note or stereotypical, which I wouldn’t disagree with, but, for some reason, it didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story.
In some ways, the characters broke from their stereotypes. The daughter of the artist, a free-spirit outcast in her own right, falls for the jock boy instead of the nerdy bookworm and seriously desires to be a bit more materialistic, like the popular daughter, without ever realizing she’s “perfect the way she is” or any other teenage movie trope. I thought that was refreshing.
In a lot of situations, the characters behaved exactly like I thought they would. They were often predictable. So when they went against the mold, I was genuinely surprised. It didn’t happen a lot, but enough to keep me somewhat on the edge of my seat.
The toughest part of this book for me was Ng’s writing style. There were certain things she did – habits she fell back on – that hurt my enjoyment of this story. I’m willing to forgive a lot in an author’s writing style. After all, there is PLENTY I need to work on in my own. So I get it. But it wouldn’t be an honest review if I didn’t say that parts of Ng’s writing bugged me.
She over-explains backstory. There were things about these characters and their history that I didn’t need to know. Especially about the up-tight, traditional mother. We had a long section explaining her backstory and her mother’s backstory that was entirely unnecessary. Sure, we got a better understanding of why she behaved the way she did and how she thought, but we understood all that already by observing her interactions with people. Ng falls into this a bit throughout the book. It almost felt like she wanted to put everything she knew about these characters into the book, even when it didn’t enhance the story. Sometimes it’s okay for the author to know things about backstory, let that influence how the character ats, but not explain that in the book. Ng put it all in and some people might like that. It distracted me.
My biggest issue with Ng’s writing style, the only part of this book that truly frustrated me, was Ng switching narration perspective on a whim. I mean we’d start a sentence from one character’s perspective and by the end of the sentence, we’re inside a different character’s head. It was jarring, confusing, and, frankly, bad. I don’t know any reader who would like that. I had to go back several times to re-read sentences because I wasn’t even sure what characters were in the scene and suddenly we’re in their heads. It…wasn’t great.
I greatly enjoyed this book. It was one of the better ones I read in 2020. It had its faults, they all do, but I think this is a book that will stick with me for a long time. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while, remembering it, and probably recommending it.
It gets 4.5 stars from me, which, I think, is the highest rated review so far on this blog.