Why is it whenever I read the most popular books coming out, I always end up hating them? I have heard universally good things about Celeste Ng’s books. I was debating reading this one or her debut novel Everything I Never Told You, but I decided on this one because I read several people saying it was her best book.
I tend not to look at tons of reviews before reading a book, because I want to not be influenced by other people’s opinions. However, I did glance at its Goodreads rating and it sits at 4.13 stars, which is incredibly high for any book. So going into it, I was sure that, while it may not be my new favorite book, I would probably enjoy it. Oh, how wrong I was.
Release: Sep. 2017
Synopsis: (from Goodreads because I don’t want to give this mess of a book the courtesy of writing my own synopsis) “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.”
Where do I start with this mess of a book? The first chapter throws way too many character in too quickly. The main conflict of the book doesn’t really come up until a third of the book is done (there is very little rising action). The characters are lumped into shallow stereotypes, and there isn’t even a basic understanding of how law or government works. Any time anything interesting happens in the book, it’s glossed over for more boring drama. I left the book thinking I could have read the first and last chapter and missed very little, which is never a good sign in any book.
So let me unpack my thoughts a bit.
We are thrown into the first chapter with the burning of the Richardson’s house, and immediately learn about at least ten characters. This is a horrible opening to any book and while I figured out the characters eventually, it made me want to set down the book after the first chapter. However, I pushed through.
The only conflict I was actually interested in was the custody battle between a Chinese mother and the couple who had adopted her baby. But that entire conflict was only really important to the plot for two chapters, and the resolution (which I’ll talk about in the spoiler section) is never explained.
Ng has a very off-putting style of writing. She will present what a character is doing, but rarely help us to understand why. On the other hand, she will also use certain language to influence the reader to perceive the characters a certain way. For example, all the rich people are bad and poor people are all good. I started to notice little vocabulary choices when Ng referred to either, which plays on the reader’s sympathies. I hate this, when I feel like a writer is trying to manipulate my feelings for no reason. The characters should be able to do that on their own, and if they don’t, they aren’t good characters.
As I continued reading this book, I found myself getting pettier and pettier in my critiques, so forgive me if these two next points seem a little nit-picky. During a court scene, it’s mentioned that there are no Chinese Barbie dolls released from Mattel (it has to do with the baby being raised with dolls who look like her). As far as I can figure, this book is set in 1998 (though I may be wrong). Well, the Great Eras Chinese Empress Barbie was released in 1997 and I believe the Dolls of the World Chinese Barbie Doll was released in 1994. This is such a simple thing to fact check, so why didn’t Ng? It made me question every ‘fact’ stated in the book.
If you don’t want to get into politics, just skip the next paragraph.
On page 147 (of the hardback copy), two characters (Mrs. Richardson and her daughter Izzy) are discussing Mrs. Richardson’s grandparents. Izzy comments, asking if they were, “Celibate and communist.” Mrs. Richardson responds with, “Thoughtful planning, a belief in equality and diversity. Truly seeing everyone as an equal.” Does anyone actually believe that is what communism is about? Clearly they haven’t learned any history. Communism is not about equality and diversity, treating everyone equally. I could spend hours talking about this topic, but if you read any writer who both influenced or was communist (Karl Marx, Mao Tse Tung, etc.) you’ll know it’s more about instigating a war between the proletariat (working class) and the bourgeoise (the rich), where the government controls everything. It has nothing to do with diversity (even if you can make an argument that it does have to do with equality, at least in the ideal form of communism, though the practical application shows the opposite). I understand the author has a Masters in Fine Arts (the most useless Masters degree), but she would only have to Google it to know how ridiculous this statement is to compare communism and diversity. I don’t usually get political, because I think everyone should have a right to believe whatever they want to believe, but I was disappointed that someone with a Masters degree doesn’t even know how the basics of government work.
In order to talk about my final problem, I have to give some spoilers.
Let’s get into the understanding of the law. Ng doesn’t seem knowledgeable at all about how the law works. What is the law precedent in the state when it comes to adoption and abandonment of a parent? Why does Bebe lose the case in the end? We barely even hear the court case of who gets custody of the baby. This is supposed to be an important plot point, but instead it feels messy and inaccurate (as is most everything in this book, such as the abortion clinic, Mia giving birth to her daughter, etc.). Nothing felt real to me!
The ending of the book ends as it began, with the fire of the Richardson’s house. And yet, except for a few details we learn throughout, there is nothing that important we learn in the entire book. It feels pointless, forced, and predictable. None of the characters were interesting, the plot was slow-moving at the best of times, and the writer’s understanding of even basic concepts is non-existent.
I may be a bit harsh on this book. It did have pretty good descriptions…I’m really trying to think of good things to say about this book, but I have nothing else
I know this is an unpopular opinion, because I haven’t seen one negative review for this book. And yet I think it would be unfair of me to lie to you and say I enjoyed it. I believe honesty is so important in life.
If you loved this book, I’d love to hear how you disagree with me. If you haven’t read it, does it look interesting to you? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,