Little Fires Everywhere
I was, I have to admit, initially very skeptical of Little Fires Everywhere. I usually avoid books that I’ve seen all over Instagram, books that I’m scared are over-hyped. I guess there’s a certain pretension to that, to avoiding overly-popular books, but I don’t know, it doesn’t feel like it’s a hipster, I-need-to-be-unique-and-special kind of thing. Am I scared they won’t live up to the hype? Or am I scared that I won’t be able to make myself like the things that everyone else imaginable is going crazy over? I’m not sure it matters.
(To read a full synopsis, you can visit Ng's website here).
One of the first things that I look for in a novel is a protagonist that I can connect with, in some way. I need that closeness, I think, the feeling of getting inside a character’s head and really understanding their motivations, desires, the things in their brain that drive the story forward. And initially, I didn’t get that from Little Fires Everywhere. I quickly realized I was dealing with an omniscient narrator and I felt a little scared that I wouldn’t be able to connect with any of the characters.
Holy shit I was wrong. The thing that really blew me away about Ng’s narrative was her ability to make me care for So. Many. Different. Characters.
At first, it’s Moody, as he meets and befriends Peal. We watch their friendship deepen, two lonely children with “the same sensitive personalities lurking inside both of them, the same bookish wisdom layered over a deep naiveté” (38).
And then we get to know Peal. Sweet Peal, so ready to put down roots at her new school and spend all her time at the Richardson's house. With Peal, I sometimes felt like I was looking in the mirror (though that's just good character creation, I suppose...I later felt the same way about Mia and Izzy). It was with Peal that I first had a YES, I KNOW THAT FEELING moment.
I honestly just started laughing during this Chapter because it was me. Except, whereas Peal is, what 15? 16? I was feeling this way as a freshman in college, a little naive girl who'd been homeschooled her whole life and didn't know what words like orgasm or masturbation meant. Oh, I loved this chapter.
I talked a little bit about how I connected to Mia in this post. But another big point of connection for me was Izzy. Oh, Izzy. Youngest child (like me). Rebel. Fireball (pun kinda intended).
Izzy also makes me think back to my freshman year in college. I was still living at home and driving 45 minutes to my university each morning and answering my mom’s texts to let her know what my day held and when I’d be home for dinner. I was still coming home every night (or nearly) but I was beginning to pull away. My parents sensed it, I know. They would be in the kitchen when I got home and they’d ask me questions about my classes and my friends and I would say as little as I could get away with while I heated up leftovers from the fridge. But the tighter they held me, the more stifled I felt. I couldn’t talk to them about all my doubts, all the questions I had about my faith, all the things about our worldview that made less and less sense as I saw more and more of the world outside that tiny religious bubble. Doubts weren't okay.
This is a familiar feeling for me. I had so many moments where I looked at the life that looked so perfect on the surface, looked at my huge childhood home (my room with floors I'd painted teal blue) and thought, Holy Shit I Have to Get Out of Here. It made me feel crazy. Confined. Stuck in a life that didn't feel authentic or natural or good to me. Toward the end of my freshman year, I started a list of Crazy Shit I Wanted to Do, things that I never had the courage. It was mostly crap like, Dye my hair a crazy color (I went with lavender), or Sneak out of the house to see my boyfriend (which I did a variation on). I never did something truly batshit, nothing that approaches burning your family's house down, but I'm familiar with that impulse to burn down an old life in an attempt to start a new one.
I can't close this post without mentioning one of the things Ng does so well, which is to really dig into the ideas of suburban racism and classism that are so essential to the story. I don't feel like my grasp of the topic is at all sufficient, but I guess I don't want to let that stop me? I have never been good at speaking up, at pointing out injustices. I'm terrified of conflict, I really suck at expressing myself when I feel anxious, and I'm terrible at arguing. But over the past couple of years, I have come to realize how much of that is just a demonstration of my privilege as someone who's cis-gendered, straight, and white. And that, just because injustices don't always affect MY life, I shouldn't stay quiet.
I remember when I was very young and my mother would sometimes hire a hispanic woman to come clean our house. Until I was 19 and meeting my boyfriend’s hispanic mother, that cleaning lady was the only hispanic person I’d really interacted with. I can remember driving past run-down houses with a multitude of cars in the driveway and hearing family members making jokes about how many Mexicans could squeeze into a room. I look back at my parents’ entirely white church and wonder how I could have just accepted that as normal. Every time we drove past someone walking on the sidewalk or waiting at a bus stop, my mom would lock the car doors. The person was almost always a person of color. I remember wondering if they would hear her locking the doors of the car and if it hurt their feelings. But still, sometimes I notice myself doing the same thing — locking my doors when I’m driving through Midtown Atlanta and I notice a homeless person crossing the street in front of me. And I wonder if that makes me a terrible person.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I lived in that comfortable suburban lie that racism doesn’t exist anymore. If I asked my parents if they were aware that their church was a collection of suburban people who looked exactly like them, they would point out that one of the families has adopted part-asian children. They would remind me that god welcomes all people into his family.
The thing Ng does really well is dig into the minds of people who really, truly think they're not racist, who believe they can "see past race." She explores the characters on both sides of the adoption case (both the white couple trying to adopt a Chinese baby and the birth mother trying to regain custody), helping us to see the beliefs and motivations supporting them. And while her exploration is far from all-encompassing, for me, it did its job -- it made me think.