Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (unpopular review)

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.”

Non-spoiler Review

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.

Spoiler Alert!

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.

Conclusion

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,

Madame Writer

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (unpopular review)

  1. This was a very interesting review to read, especially since I enjoyed this one! I definitely glossed over several of the more in-depth points you made though, so this was insightful. Also, I completely agree about the lack of rising action! It didn’t bother me enough to put the book down, but it’s something I find issue with in almost all of the lit-fic I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Every reader has different tastes, and I can understand why someone might like this book. Just I didn’t. I guess I don’t read that much lit-fic, so I was expecting more rising action. I definitely want to read the genre more.

      Like

  2. I do enjoy the author’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, but I can’t enjoy Little Fires Everywhere either. I was surprised that it is rated 8.3 out of 10 on Dou Ban in China.

    I feel in this novel the author puts more emphasis on several concepts she believed in than creating more real, complicated characters and compelling plots, and she tries to discuss so many topics in this novel but nothing is really deeply examined, which, in my opinion, makes the novel end up in a mess.

    My biggest pet peeve is about the characters. As you said, most of the residents different from people like Mia are described so superficial and flat. Compared to those residents, Mia seems so “perfect”, for it seems obvious that the author admires her so much and thinks what Mia represents is more correct. And in the novel she doesn’t give the residents like the Edersons as much right to express themselves as Mia. It is unfair! In my opinion, Mrs. Ederson is a person who feels much more real than Mia. 😂Perhaps I’m biased, but I don’t like Mia because she is more of a bland icon used to convey some ideas like breaking the damn rules. There is nothing wrong with the ideas per se, but I think ideas, concepts and characters are not combined successfully in the novel. And there is no more debate between the two different values that the residents and Mia represent. What a pity!

    Speaking of communism, I don’t think that the humanity, at least nowadays, is good enough to measure up to this wonderful dream. I know little about politics, but I feel it even when I’m playing online games where everyone that is more powerful than me wants to loot my poor resources… I just want to yell at them: “Live and let live!” After few days, I uninstalled the game…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Video gamers are evil! I’ve tried playing a few online games as well until I got fed up with people killing me and stealing stuff. So I agree with you! Live and let live!

      As for the book, I’m glad you agree with me. Mia was one of my least favorite characters for exactly the same reasons you said. It’s like she’s made into a perfect person in the eyes of the author, instead of a flawed character we can really root for. And, like you said, too many concepts are covered in this book, making it feel like the representation of each is shallow.

      Since you liked her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, I might check it out. I didn’t want to after being disappointed with this book, but if you liked it better, I’ll put it back on my reading list.

      Thank you for sharing your opinion! You explained your issues with this book better than I did!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That makes two of us! The world of some games can be competitive and cruel (so is the real world…) And I’m glad that you agree with me, too! I used to read some short reviews about this book, and many readers could relate to Mia. I was like “Really? Do I dislike her because I’m jealous of her unique personality?” It’s great that I can express my true opinion in the comment!

        This novel is similar to Everything I Never Told You. But I think Everything I Never Told You is more subtle and complicated than it. It feels more cohesive with many details, and the characters are more complex. I remember that everyone is so lonely despite the fact that they’re family, which touches me.

        On top of that, the main theme of the debut novel is what I am not familiar with but I really relate to. Since It was when I was really confused about life that I came across the novel, I appreciated it for the courage it gave me.

        But it’s just my humble opinion. Follow your heart if you check out the book!😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Also, I like Everything I Never Told You because the Chinese translation is so beautiful. The title is translated into 无声告白 (wu sheng gao bai). I have to say, the translator is a genius!

          Oops, I talk so much again.😃

          Liked by 1 person

  3. It was very interesting to read your opinion on this one. I haven’t read it but have seen it plenty around book websites. Now I will know to stay away from it (especially with my law background, though I never studied family law). Usually, I will be up for a dramatic suburban story, but I also do not like manipulative language and the reading of the synopsis alone made me a bit dizzy: there seems to be “a stranger coming to town” plot, adoption, neighbours and mother-daughter relationships. I’ll skip. Btw, I am also perplexed how anyone can equate “communism” with “diversity”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! If you have a background in law, you would probably dislike this book even more than I did, since I’m only minorly interested in law. And yes, the synopsis doesn’t even fully encompass how confusing this plot is. It’s a pity, since some of the ideas could have been interesting if written differently.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so glad you wrote this review. I have tried to read this book a few times and always get fed up with it early on (for many of the same reasons you listed). It’s received so many great reviews that I’ve wondered if I was the only one unimpressed by it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad I’m not the only one! I’ve only read great reviews for this book as well, which made me even more disappointed when I did read it and disliked it. I probably should have done what you did and quit early on in the book.

      Liked by 1 person

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