Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng, author, Jennifer Lynn, narrator
If I had to use one word to summarize this book, I would use motherhood, motherhood in all of its possible definitions. What does it mean to be a mother? What makes a good mother? Who has the right to decide what is or who is a good mother? Who has the right to decide the timing for motherhood?
The story has several interesting female characters. One, Elena. Richardson, basically unconsciously, picked mercilessly on her last born child, daughter Izzy, because she was afraid she would suffer from health issues as she grew up. She was premature, and the doctor had warned her of possible repercussions in her future. Her overly critical treatment of the child hurt her emotionally. Her other children were self-confident, privileged and a bit irresponsible, assuming everyone lived in the comfortable way that they did. Mrs. Richardson (Elena) can be described as a creature of habit and structure. She expects others she has been kind to, to return the favor. She is a bit of a good-natured busybody. Therefore, one has to wonder if her intent is truly kind. She has been a local reporter for a small neighborhood paper for years and would like a good story to help her break out into real journalism. The Richardson’s live with material excess, what today is called “white privilege”. Is that a fair term of description?.
Mia is unconventional and her mothering is as well. In her youth, struggling to pay for her education in photography, Mia agreed to be a surrogate mother, but, instead, after a change of heart, she ran away and kept the baby, named Pearl. She continued to run for the rest of her life to avoid dealing with what she had done. Her parents rejected her because they believed she was selling her baby. Was that what she was doing? Mia and Pearl subsist on what she earns from selling her work or from odd jobs. They move when the mood strikes Mia and are not attached to material possessions. They live minimally.
Mrs. Riley wanted a surrogate mother to bear a child for her, one that looked like her. She and her husband had the wherewithal to pay someone to have a baby for them. Should that contract be binding legally and subject to criminal charges if broken?
Mrs. McCullough could not conceive a child. She had had several miscarriages. She and her husband desperately wanted a baby. Many attempts at adoption had been unsuccessful, until, one day, they were offered an abandoned child to adopt. What happens if the biological mother shows up and wants that baby back? Who should raise that child? Who is the rightful mother?
Bebe, a Chinese immigrant, is impoverished. She abandoned her baby because she could not afford to care for her when she was abandoned by the father. Her English was poor and she was unable to care for the child properly, although she tried her best. Did she do the right thing? Was it criminal? Did she give up her rights to the child in the future?
Lexi is a teenager who engaged in unprotected sex and decided to have an abortion when she discovered she was pregnant. She was supposed to go to Yale and the baby would have negatively impacted the lives of herself and her boyfriend. She wondered, did she make the right decision? Should she have discussed it with her boyfriend? Did he have the right to know? Did her mother have the right to know? Should she, as the adult and guardian have been consulted? Will Lexi carry that decision with her for the remainder of her life, always wondering if it was right or wrong?
For me, the title holds several meanings. One would pertain to an actual fire, one would pertain to creativity, coming up with a new idea, and one would pertain to the idea of encouragement, to figuratively lighting a fire underneath someone to propel them into action. This book, explores those ideas with regard to motherhood and life, in general, through the experiences of the characters. It also exposes the different ideas that define all types of motherhood. Should class, status, social standing, culture or ethnicity influence any of the choices regarding motherhood, behavior and rights?
The story takes place in the community of Shaker Heights, an affluent community in Cleveland, Ohio. It is essentially a bubble filled with similar people who have similar goals of upward mobility. The Richardson family lives there. Mia and Pearl Warren arrive there looking for a suitable community to settle in with good schools and a safe environment. Mia has decided that Pearl would benefit from a less nomadic life. They rent an apartment from the Richardson’s. They live in a minimalist way while the Richardson’s live with obvious abundance. The Richardson’s and the Warner’s learn about and react to each other’s way of life.
Moody Richardson and Pearl Warren are high school sophomores. They become fast friends as they are the same age and are in many of the same classes in school. Pearl loves her new home and also becomes friends with Lexi Richardson who is a senior. When she meets Trip Richardson, a junior, a romance develops. Izzy, is the youngest Richardson child who has always been singled out as a troublemaker by her mom, and so she has subsequently taken on that persona of a troublemaker. She becomes close to Mia Warren who opens up her mind to being less rebellious. She is kind to her and accepts her as she is, but her advice is often ill thought out. Izzy remains “a loose cannon”.
The ideas of abortion and unwanted pregnancies are examined along with the idea of who is the real or true mother in a custody battle between a parent who abandoned her child and the parent who hopes to adopt the child, the surrogate or the one engaging her. What rights does a surrogate mother have when she signs an agreement to deliver the child to the family? Which idea of parenting is more beneficial to children, the structured or unstructured approach? When an underage female has an abortion, who should decide whether or not it is appropriate, who should counsel her?
Each of the female characters in the book engages in behavior that is not always by the book, ethical or even legal. Yet they all seem to get away with pushing the envelope. The person who behaves least responsibly seems to come out the winner, in the end, although that irresponsible behavior was the catalyst that caused many catastrophes that can not be reversed. I wondered why that has become acceptable behavior. I wondered, also, who was the greater villain of the mothers featured. Was it the busybody Mia, who chose her nomadic life over her daughter’s need for structure, or the busybody Mrs. Richardson? Was it the would-be mother seeking a surrogate or the mother seeking to keep an abandoned child after the biological mother wants her back? Does the mother who abandons her child retain any rights? The meddling of others, the lies told and the secrets kept continue to come back to haunt many of the characters, but they are resilient and seem to find ways to adjust.
One parent taught with compassion and by example, not always good ones, and the other seemed impetuous, rushing to judgment and meting out acts of retribution. The children learned from those parents, imitating their behavior. The Richardson children learned self-confidence, but they also learned to be arrogant and to feel entitled, entitled to what they possessed and to use others to serve their needs. Pearl Warren, on the other hand, learned patience and consideration from her mother. She learned to appreciate and accept what little she had, but was amazed and enthralled by how the Richardson’s lived. Although Pearl’s life of a drifter seemed the more unstable than the structured life of the Richardson’s, was it really less stable or was it actually more enduring and flexible?
The paramount idea of breaking out of one’s “box” and beginning again, seemed to work for all of the characters with minimal repercussions. The book intensely examines motherhood, with regard to surrogacy and biology, the idea of giving up a child, losing a child and the rights to a child is dissected. Family values with regard to class, culture, wealth, poverty, parental influence and legal rights and the bubbles within which we all live are explored. Behavior, often illegal, seems to be encouraged in some ways, and I found that confounding. Did the book bite off more than it could chew? Are there too many social issues introduced? In an attempt to be progressive and open minded has common sense sometimes flown out the window.