Motherhood and family are the two major Themes with a capital "T" in "Litte Fires Everywhere", Ng's second novel. We meet Elena Richardson as she stands on a sidewalk in her bathrobe, watching the perfect home she spent a lifetime building inside the manicured landscape of Shaker Heights, OH, burn to the ground in a fire started by her youngest daughter, Izzy. In an instant, questions abound about how such a seemingly perfect life could result in such destruction.
When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl arrive in Shaker Heights and rent an apartment from the Richardsons, they are both thrown into the world of this Norman Rockwell-ish family. After years of itinerant living, with Mia, a photographer and artist, packing up her daughter and leaving town after town, Mia has promised Pearl that they will stay in Shaker Heights for an extended time, to allow Pearl to experience some semblance of a stable life. Pearl easily finds herself growing attached to the Richardson brood, becoming best friends with the kind Moody, the popular and ethereal Lexie, and the attractive, sporty Trip. Lost in the mix is Izzy, the long suffering youngest daughter and frequent target for criticism and disdain from her mother, Elena. Spending every day after school at the Richardson house, Pearl catches a glimpse of what life is like inside a stable, nuclear family and is enraptured. Meanwhile, Mia continues to work on her art, taking odd jobs to support Pearl, including one as the Richardsons' housekeeper. Both Mia and Pearl quickly begin to see the Richardsons' life for what it truly is, warts and all.
But the Richardsons are not the only ones with secrets. Mia has spent decades moving from town to town, keeping a low profile and seems to have no connections to anyone but her daughter. When Elena grows suspicious of her new tenant and housekeeper, she begins digging into Mia's past and uncovers the truth about this strange mother and daughter that don't quite fit in to her family ideal.
The town of Shaker Heights is rocked by a local case involving the Richardsons' family friends and their adoption of a baby that was abandoned at a local firehouse. The baby happens to be the daughter of Mia's work friend and a custody battle ensues, pitting friend and neighbor against each other with Elena and Mia taking very different sides.
Ng does an admirable job tying the cast of characters together and writing a story that is compelling and engaging. From the moment I began reading about the Richardsons and the Warrens, I felt sucked into the strange world of overachieving suburbia and the people who live on the edges of that picture perfect lifestyle. And, thanks to the great characters of Mia and Pearl, Ng gives a complete view of the clandestine and not-so-quiet scandals that can take place behind the perfectly kept lawns of the "ideal" neighborhood. I felt her handling of the custody case was the strongest part of the book, largely because it felt realistic and told with just the right amount of suspense and emotion. Without giving away any spoilers here, I was VERY satisfied with the ending of that storyline.
The story did slow a little for me toward the middle. I appreciate all the machinations going on between the high school aged characters and the various viewpoints we get from the Richardson kids as well as Pearl. However, I did feel the pace of the book slowed a little bit but then picked up again at the end. I also felt that Mia's secret, once it had been revealed, felt a bit far fetched and out of character. There were moments when I didn't truly understand her motivations, but she was so likeable and empathetic, that I looked past that.
This book is definitely worth a read. I would recommend this book to fans of stories about the complications of families of all kinds, the ones we are born into and the ones we create for ourselves. Ng creates compelling characters in challenging situations.