Review: Little Fires Everywhere, a timely novel of issues
Fires break out in a utopian late 1990s town called Shaker Heights in Ohio. A town based on all of the right virtues, images and people was set aflame because of one match and a large supply of natural gas. This match was Mia Warren and her daughter, Pearl. They become inextricably intertwined with the fates of the esteemed Richardson family. Once the Warrens chose this town to stay in for a while, everything in their lives and in Shaker changed. Uncomfortable questions about race, wealth, happiness and status quo are asked not only by the characters, but the readers and viewers.
Celeste Ng’s book, Little Fires Everywhere was a New York Times bestseller for nearly fifty weeks, and many now equally associate the title with the Hulu series starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. Ng was a producer on the series and subsequently kept the essence of the book, but she also approved a few new avenues for the series. Like many of the people who originally read the book first, I muttered, “this is not like the book,” several times while watching the series. Celeste Ng does not reveal the race of the Warrens in the book, although she intended them to be people of color. In the show, the Warrens are a family of Black women. The differences elevated the suburban, almost nondescript, conventional plot with poignant contemporary nuances, and the show discussed the complexities of the intersectionality of race and gender that the novel tiptoed around at times.
A single nomadic mother and her daughter arrive as tenants of the wealthy Richardson family. Mia, the mother, is an artist, taking photographs all over the United States and going in whatever direction inspires her. They rent one part of a two-family house disguised as a single house. These duplexes are located at one end of town, but do not appear as duplexes to lessen the stigma of two-family homes. There are a lot of disguises in Shaker, despite its liberal and progressive foundations. The founders wanted a diverse and equitable town without violence, division, or detriment, as close to a utopia as they could get. That was their wish, which falls upon the shoulders of each subsequent generation. Elena Richardson, the matriarch of the Richardson family, is a local journalist, and her husband is a lawyer. They have four children, all in high school: Moody, Trip, Lexie and Izzy.
The novel features outsiders that disrupt a delicate conformity. Celeste Ng presents a lot of instances of intersectionality of race, gender, wealth, and status in this novel, but only venturing so far. All of the teens interact. Pearl, Mia’s daughter, befriends Yale-bound Lexie. In the novel, Lexie struggles with her Yale prompt of rewriting a fairy tale and Pearl, looking to ingratiate herself further with the Richardsons, offers to help write it for her. Lexie graciously accepts and uses the essay. She gets into Yale.
In the series, the situation is a bit different. Lexie struggles to write her Yale essay to which the prompt is “adversity.” The main adversity in her life was writing about adversity, ironically. Her mother, Elena, denounces the prompt saying that her experience is still valuable, and just because her parents fought for a privileged life, her chances at Yale should not suffer. Concurrently, Pearl has a hard time getting the schedule she wants in her new high school in Shaker. Due to her mother’s creative occupation, Pearl has attended many different high schools, but she has still managed to take advanced classes. Her counselor will not let her take an advanced math class, despite the fact that Pearl has taken the prerequisite.
He attributes it to the different curriculum in the high school, but in reality, two interacting prejudices dictated the decision. Pearl is upset and writes a letter about the situation, about the inherent racism and sexism she experienced. She asks Elena to read it, valuing her writing acumen, but Elena vehemently takes her side and inserts herself. Elena ‘takes care of it,’ rather than supporting Pearl in standing up for herself. Lexie catches hold of the letter and puts a spin on it for her own purposes. For her Yale essay, she describes Pearl’s situation, but solely through the lens of sexism. She describes her anger in being discouraged to take an advanced class because of a male counselor. She gets in.
Lexie’s Black, Princeton-bound boyfriend initially sympathizes with her, but after he finds out the truth, he doesn’t view her the same way. She stole not only someone’s words, but someone's experience and the experience of many Black women for her own gain. This is one of the instances where the book did not delve or linger on the situation, it was implicit — the series makes it explicit and for good reason.
Another pertinent issue addressed with poignancy is the intersection of motherhood, family structures, class, and race. There is a narrative backdrop, in the town of Shaker, concerning a Chinese baby that was left at a fire station by her destitute immigrant mother, Bebe. The mother has postpartum depression and struggles to live in America. This child fulfills the dreams of a couple who had numerous miscarriages in Shaker. Eventually, Bebe changed her mind.
She wanted her daughter back and as she adjusts to her life in America realizes her profound loss. She searches for her daughter everywhere, but cannot find her. Mia facilitates the finding of the child and strikes a match to the prospective adoptive parents — one of the newly established families in Shaker.
In the novel, Mia does not step further into the situation than this. In the series, Mia takes on a personal role in the court case, leveraging her story in testifying and providing money for a lawyer to help Bebe. Another important difference is that Elena and the mother of the Shaker family that was looking to adopt the child offered to pay Bebe off to step away silently from her child. Did Bebe have the right to change her mind? Was the baby better off with her adoptive family? Is blood thicker than water? What did the baby deserve — her biological mother and a life of love and struggle like with Mia or a life of love and luxury like with the Richardsons?
This case rips Shaker apart. It’s a wildfire. Everyone has different opinions, although they feel pressured to support the Shaker family, who are good people and deserved a family after so much heartache.
There are countless changes like these that bring many important issues to light. There are more flickers in the situations that Mia and Pearl face that brighten the series, not only for visibility of the issues, but for the gradual building of the massive fire at the Richardsons’ home. The Warrens and Richardsons become protagonists, and their stories become one for a period of time.
The novel and series start with flames and end in them, but these flickers throughout both stories guide the viewers and readers. The flickers may be stronger in the series, but the story in both formats are equally well done and beautiful. This is one of the rare times that the adaptation improves and expands on its written source, but still keeps its integrity.