Looking for a Pretty Good Book?

The BookLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What attracted me? I loved her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. Celeste Ng writes skillfully about troubled family dynamics and the subtleties of racial tension—themes that appeared in her first book. That book balances the central mystery (How and why did 16-year-old Lydia Lee die?) with character studies of her family members and boyfriend. Ng’s writing is insightful and poetic.

For me, there was the added bonus of learning about Shaker Heights, Ohio, a planned community in northeastern Ohio. Although I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, at the western edge of Lake Erie, I know very little about the Cleveland area.

The premise? Little Fires Everywhere also opens with a mystery. The Richardson house, home to well-to-do parents Elena and Bill Richardson and their four teenaged kids: Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy, has been nearly demolished by fire, but no one was hurt. The family is fairly sure that rebellious Izzy set the fire, so the question is why. While Elena is watching her house smolder, her starving artist tenant, Mia Warren, and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, abruptly leave the small house Elena had rented to them.

What appealed to me? Ng does an excellent job of re-creating the idealistic, but claustrophobic, culture of Shaker Heights in the 1990s, a pre-digital age. Pagers were more common than cell phones and research was done the hard way—without the Internet—a fact that allows Mia to pull up stakes and move without a trace every 10-12 months in pursuit of Mia’s art.

Because she’s always lived a vagabond lifestyle, Pearl relishes being swept into the lives of the Richardson kids. None of the kids is aware of how Pearl interacts with the other siblings, which heightens family tensions.

Privilege and class undermine the relationships. Elena, intending to be generous, bullies Mia into cleaning house for the Richardsons, in addition to her job at a Chinese restaurant. Lexie gives Mia castoff clothes, which Pearl is happy to have, but Mia resents.

Race becomes a central issue when Mia’s friend and coworker Bebe, an impoverished Chinese immigrant, seeks to regain custody of her daughter Mei Ling, who has been adopted by the Richardson’s wealthy, childless white friends.

Much good material. But despite intriguing characters and set-up, the book strained credibility. Even allowing for being set in a pre-digital age, could Mia really disappear so completely every year or so? While the Richardson kids are more than character sketches, none of them feels fully realized. Interestingly, Izzy, who sets the novel in motion, is the least developed.

Sometimes in her effort to contrast Elena and Mia, along with the life choices they’ve made, Ng drifts into stereotyping. The book is a pretty good read but not as believable or affecting as Everything I Never Told You.

What books do YOU recommend?

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Looking for a Good Book?

WordSisters is adding a new feature—a completely idiosyncratic mini book review/recommendation that will appear every now and then.

The bookThere Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

What attracted me? I’ve read several of Mary Gordon’s novels (The Company of Women, Final Payments) and think she’s a good writer, but I haven’t read anything of hers lately, so I was curious. Also I was pretty sure that Mary Gordon wouldn’t have written a romance novel, which is sort of what the title sounds like—a bit of misdirection.

The premise – When Marian, a woman in her nineties, is diagnosed with cancer, she shares her secret past with her granddaughter, Amelia. Marian is closer to Amelia than any of her other relatives, and Amelia is caring for Marian while she sorts out her life after college.

Amelia envisions that the secret past she is about to discover will be quaint and charming, perhaps involving flapper dresses and smoking. Instead, she learns her grandmother volunteered as an ambulance driver and nurse during the Spanish Civil War along with her idealistic Communist Party friends. Marian’s time in Spain has far-reaching consequences, which affect Amelia.

What appealed to me – Marian and Amelia are likable characters, and I liked the idea of their close connection. Marian’s story dominates the book and her reactions are often surprising, which made her more interesting. Amelia is less well developed but still a believable character (Gordon could have done more with her), has her own coming-of-age moment.

The plot takes some unexpected turns (that’s good), and I learned a lot about the history and politics in Spain that resulted in the atrocities perpetrated by Franco’s fascist forces as well as those committed by the resistance fighters. Aside from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War, so Gordon’s novel illuminated that time for me.

What books do YOU recommend?