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Little Fires Everywhere

By Celeste Ng, Arson, adoption and class divisions ignite tensions in a well-to-do town in Ohio

Detailed Summary
Read it or Skip It?
Film Adaptation

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere has been high on my to-read list for a while, since its release back in the Fall of 2017. It’s gotten very good reviews, and it’s in development as a Hulu series (produced by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington).

I held off on reading it because I had lukewarm feelings about her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, but I had a chance to read it this weekend and was pleasantly surprised.

little fires everywhere review summary movie

Plot Summary

For the Detailed Plot Summary, click here or scroll all the way down.

The book opens with a fire in the well-heeled neighborhood of Shaker Heights — a culmination of simmering tensions in the community.

The town has been divided over a thorny issue involving the adoption of a baby by a couple in the neighborhood. While the couple is well-off with good intentions, the birth mother has been searching for her baby since she left her at fire station in desperation and then subsequently realized her mistake a few days later.

In story about adoption, motherhood, race and social divisions, Celeste Ng presents a thoughtful and gripping drama about community wrestling with difficult questions about character, class and values.

Book Review

I read Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, a little over a year ago, and had generally positive but fairly lukewarm feelings about it. In Little Fires Everywhere, Ng presents a more confident, compelling story while maintaining the positive aspects – solid writing, empathetically written characters, etc – of her first novel.

Here, Ng draws detailed portraits of a neighborhood, family and friends divided by thorny issues relating to the adoption of a baby. The Richardsons are well-off with a cadre of promising teenage kids, and Mrs. Richardson is close friends with the couple that has adopted the baby in question. Meanwhile, the Warrens are a modest family of two — a single mom and her daughter — who are minorities and less financially stable. Mia Warren is the one who tells the birth mother about the baby’s whereabouts.

I really liked that Ng fleshes out each character in her story, and each one of them feels like an individual. There are no easy answers in this book filled with good intentions and imperfect people caught in an impossible situation. In the process of giving each character a full background, there’s a few parts that drag a little, but it’s a pretty minor issue.

Throughout the story, a range of characters with differing backgrounds, values and mindsets attempt to make sense of the situation, coming to vastly different conclusions. Ng treats each of these viewpoints with respect and diligently attempts to present the best arguments on each side. She handles tricky topics with deftness, discussing things like the inherent difficulty of reconciling the desire for social justice against the desire for social order. Adoption, abortion and even surrogacy all crop up in this book, and Ng handles each with care and measured consideration.

It’s a thoughtful and insightful book, presented through the lens of a neighborhood drama that gives the story its beating heart and provides the book with the action and intrigue to drive the plot forward.

Little Fires Everywhere Movie / Series Adaptation

There’s also a promising adaptation of this book in the works. The Little Fires Everywhere adaptation is planned as an 8-episode Hulu mini-series, slated for 2020. Reportedly, there was a huge bidding war before Hulu won the rights to the series. Reese Witherspoon (as Elena Richardson), Kerry Washington (as Mia Warren) and Rosemary DeWitt (as Linda McCullough) are included on the cast list.

For all the details, see Everything We Know about the Little Fires Everywhere Hulu Limited Series.

Reese Witherspoon as Elena Richardson and Kerry Washington as Mia Warren

Reese Witherspoon as Elena Richardson and Kerry Washington as Mia Warren

Read it or Skip it?

Little Fires Everywhere is one of those books that’s easy to recommend, but is best read if you’re in a thoughtful mood. It’s well written, accessible and poses intriguing questions about complex issues. There’s a lot of stuff to mull over in its brisk 300 or so pages. This has been a popular book club pick ever since its release back in 2017, for good reason.

This is more of a considered, issues-focused book than a plot-heavy thriller or anything like that, so I’d recommend taking that into consideration and deciding if that’s something you’re interested in.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book, which I found very engaging. It’s a story that’s well worth a few hours of your time. I’m very interested to see what she comes up with next!

Have you read this or are you thinking about it? Feel free to share your thoughts below! See it on Amazon.


Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)

Chapters 1 - 2

Shaker Heights is a well-heeled community. There has been a fire at the Richardson’s house. The firemen report there were “little fires everywhere” (multiple points of origin) around the house. Isabel "Izzy" Richardson, a freshman, is the black sheep of her family and is missing. Her siblings Trip, Moody and Lexie all suspect she was the culprit.

The Richardsons (Billy and Elena Richardson) have a rental property located in the same neighborhood with two units, an upstairs and downstairs apartment. Mrs. Richardson likes to rent to lower income tenants, as it makes her feel like she is doing a good deed. The downstairs is occupied by a longtime tenant, Mr. Yang. Last summer, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl Warren moved into the upstairs apartment.

Chapters 3 - 6

(The narration moves back in time to when Mia and Pearl first move in.) Mia Warren is an artist. She works part-time at a restaurant. Pearl is her adopted daughter who is Moody's age (teenager). They move frequently and travel lightly. Pearl is studious and shy.

When they meet, Moody likes Pearl immediately. Moody introduces her to his family, and Pearl is infatuated with the stability and picture-perfectness of it all. She spends a lot of time at the Richardson's house. Though Moody likes Pearl, Pearl has a crush on his brother, Trip.

Lexie befriends Pearl as well. Mia worries about Lexie's influence on Pearl. Lexie takes her to a Halloween party where the both drink, and ditches Pearl to have sex with her boyfriend (Brian). Moody ends up showing up and driving her home. When Mrs. Richardson offers Mia a job cleaning her house part time, and Mia accepts, partially to be able to keep an eye on Pearl.

Chapters 7 - 8

Izzy gets suspended from school for a few days. The orchestra teacher, Mrs. Peters was picking on a student and said something racist to her, and Izzy had broken Mrs. Peters' bow in response. Izzy wants to retaliate by toilet papering Mrs. Peter's house. Instead of telling her not to, Mia warns her to do something where she won't get caught so obviously.

Instead, Izzy pulls a massive prank on the school involving jamming all the locks with toothpicks. She sees Mia as a kindred subversive spirit and offers to be her art assistant for free. Mia resists at first, and then agrees. Izzy gets more and more attached to Mia who is kind to her where her own mother is not.

There's a field trip to a museum for Moody and Pearl's class. To their surprise, one exhibit from a photographer named Pauline Hawthorne, is a photo of Mia with a baby that Pearl does not recognize. Mia claims she posed as a model as an odd job.

Chapters 9 - 10

Another friend of Mrs. Richardson, Linda McCoullough, has adopted a baby, named Mirabelle. The baby was found at a fire station. When Mia finds out, she remembers that a co-worker of hers, Bebe Chow, had left her baby at a fire station about a year ago. She had been unemployed and hopeless. She had tried to get the baby back a few days later, but the police insisted she'd lost her rights. Mia tells Bebe about Mirabelle.

When the McCoulloughs refuse to talk to Bebe, Mia advises her to turn to news outlets. It works and soon Mirabelle McCollough / May Ling Chow (as named by Bebe) is all over the news, and a local lawyer (Ed Lim) offers to represent Bebe for free. Meanwhile, Mr. Richardson, a lawyer, is asked by the McCoulloughs to assist their lawyer. Mrs. Richardson pieces together that Mia was the one who told Bebe about her baby.

Chapters 11 - 12

Mrs. Richardson is angry over Mia's involvement. She used to be an aspiring journalist before marriage, and starts doing some research on Mia. Her real name is Mia Wright. She finds out she left college abruptly and that she had a younger brother who died during high school, Warren. She seeks out Mia's parents and found out Mia was a surrogate (carrying someone else's child for money) in college.

One day, when everyone else is out of the house, Pearl and Trip are working on math homework and end up having sex. They continue hooking up, but secretly.

Lexie gets into Yale, but soon also finds out she's pregnant. She knows she cannot keep it. She asks Pearl to take her to the clinic to get an abortion. When the ask for her name, she panics and gives them Pearl's name.

Chapters 13-14

When Mia was younger, her parents disapproved of her interest in photography, which caused a rift in their relationship. She enrolls in art school without their support (financial or otherwise) but with a scholarship. A couple (Joseph and Madeline Ryan) approaches her offering her ten thousand dollars to be a surrogate because she resembles Madeline. Soon she finds out the school is no longer offering her scholarship due to budget cuts. In need of money, Mia agrees to the surrogacy.

Warren gets into a car accident, so Mia is forced to go home and her parents find out about the arrangement and are horrified. Mia decides she can't go through with it, and decides to keep the baby. She lies and tells the Ryans that she miscarried. She then changes her name, leaves town and has the baby, Pearl.

Chapters 15-16

Mrs. Richardson does not learn most of the details of Mia's past -- only that there was a surrogacy -- when she reaches out to the law firm that handled the details and is able to get the name of the couple (the Ryans).

Pearl and Lexie get back from the abortion and go to Mia's place. Mia figures out what happened. Mia comforts Lexie.

The hearing for custody of May Ling / Mirabelle begins. It goes through all of Bebe's shortcomings (she was unemployed, unstable financially, etc.). Then, Mrs. McCullough takes the stand and Bebe's lawyer questions her, noting her inability to educate the baby on her culture and how it would effectively divorce her from it.

Chapters 17 - 18

Moody finds out about Trip and Pearl when he sees them together. Moody confronts Pearl, and they end up insulting each other.

Lexie's boyfriend, Brian, still doesn't know about the abortion, but she no longer wants to be intimate with him. When he badgers her about it, she picks a fight with him and they break up.

Meanwhile, the judge in the case (Judge Rheinbeck) is still undecided over a month after-the-fact. Mrs. Cullough mentions to Mrs. Richardson that she wonders if Bebe had gotten pregnant again a few months ago. Bebe has been going by her house regularly to visit the baby and she seemed plumper, etc. but then one day she just went back to normal. (The book informs us that she was not, but the women don't know that.)

Mrs. Richardson pressures her friend at the clinic, Elizabeth, to look into it. Elizabeth, of course, refuses since that both illegal and unethical. But Mrs. Richardson visits her office and manages to glance at the system records while Elizabeth is on a call. She sees the entry for "Pearl Warren."

Later that day, Judge Rheinbeck delivers his verdict in favor of the McCulloughs.

Mrs. Richardson assumes Pearl and Moody were hooking up and confronts Moody, who points her to Trip. Angrily, Mrs. Richardson confronts Mia and finally says all the things that have been brewing inside her over the whole situation. She evicts Mia.

Chapters 19 - 20

Mia tells Pearl they need to leave and Pearl is upset. They have a talk, and Mia finally tells her everything about her background, her parents and the surrogacy. They finish packing, and Mia leaves an envelope with some photos behind for the Richardsons. They leave without saying goodbyes.

Izzy figures out they the Warrens have left and that Lexie was the one who was pregnant, not Pearl. Izzy is angry with her whole family -- with her mom for instigating it all, with her father for representing the McCulloughs, with Trip for using Pearl, with Moody for telling their mom about them, with Lexie for being selfish and letting people think Pearl is pregnant. She starts the fire in her house.

The Richardsons stay in their rental unit and find the photos that were left for them -- one representing each of them. Then they get the call from the McCulloughs, telling them that Mirabelle is missing. (Bebe has stolen her and booked a flight to Canton.)

Izzy runs away to Pittsburg and decides she'll try to look for the Warrens and stay with them.

See Little Fires Everywhere on Amazon.