Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a comfortable, peaceful, progressive suburb of Cleveland, a carefully planned community incorporated in 1912 that exists in a gentle state of idyll, sustained by adherence to the “rules, many rules, about what you could and could not do.” It’s a marvelous setting for a novel, reminiscent of the sleepy fictional villages that are forever being ravaged by murder.
But unlike St. Mary Mead or Cabot Cove, Shaker Heights is a real place — author Celeste Ng grew up there. In “Little Fires Everywhere,” the stellar follow-up to her bestselling 2014 debut, “Everything I Never Told You,” she takes her hometown and throws it into chaos, with glee and evident affection. The book has some serious themes, but the tone is refreshingly animated, less dependent on ennui and adultery than many of the books that have defined suburban American fiction.
The story begins at the end, with a spot of arson. “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.”
This is precisely the sort of disaster Elena Richardson, a Shaker Heights native, thought she could avoid. Mrs. Richardson has lived her life guided by the town’s spirit, trusting the promise that planning prevents catastrophe. “She had been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them — and believe — she did. She had had a plan, from girlhood on, and had followed it scrupulously: high school, college, boyfriend, marriage, job, mortgage, children. … She had, in short, done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted.” Mrs. Richardson has built her entire existence around this personal philosophy. It is not a structure that bends pliantly in the face of a challenge.
The challenge comes in the shape of Mia Warren, a visual artist and single mother who rents a house from the Richardsons with her teenage daughter Pearl. Mrs. Richardson is immediately fascinated and unsettled by “this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completely different life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies.” Before long, their children befriend each other, and they befriend each other’s children. By the time Mrs. Richardson decides that Mia is her nemesis, the two women’s lives have become messily entwined.
Lines are drawn over a heated custody battle between Mia’s co-worker— a young Chinese waitress who abandoned her baby in a moment of desperation — and the Richardsons’ close friends, a wealthy white couple in the final stages of that baby’s adoption. When Mrs. Richardson discovers Mia was the one who set these events in motion, she nearly loses her mind. “Mia did whatever she wanted, Mrs. Richardson thought, and what would result? Heartbreak for her oldest friend. Chaos for everyone. You can’t just do what you want, she thought. Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?” Already suspicious of her enigmatic tenant, she goes on an increasingly vindictive, obsessive mission to uncover any secrets in Mia’s past.
Unlucky for Mia, Mrs. Richardson has developed her investigative skills writing for the local paper, and Mia has plenty of secrets. Even Pearl doesn’t know much about her mother’s past. (Asked where Mia grew up, Pearl replies, “I’m not really sure. California, maybe?”) But while Mrs. Richardson seems to see Mia as the immovable object to her unstoppable force, Mia is just trying to live her life in peace, raising her daughter and creating her (brilliant but commercially unmotivated) art. After years of moving from one town to another, she’s finally promised Pearl they can put down roots. For the first time, Pearl lets herself get close to new people. Disastrously, all of these people are Richardsons.
The plot is tightly structured, full of echoes and convergence, the characters bound together by a growing number of thick, overlapping threads. Mia starts as Mrs. Richardon’s tenant, then becomes her housekeeper, then a mentor and secret keeper for her children; Pearl falls into a love triangle with the two Richardson boys. Like Shaker Heights, “Little Fires Everywhere” is meticulously planned, every storyline and detail placed with obvious purpose. This can be overbearing at times — an on-the-nose college essay prompt comes to mind — but the overall effect is strong and thoroughly enjoyable.
Ng is a confident, talented writer, and it’s a pleasure to inhabit the lives of her characters and experience the rhythms of Shaker Heights through her clean, observant prose. Before she became an author she was a miniaturist — almost too perfect for a writer of suburban fiction — and there’s a lovely, balanced, dioramic quality to this novel. She toggles between multiple points of view, creating a narrative both broad in scope and fine in detail, all while keeping the story moving at a thriller’s pace.
Mrs. Richardson warns, “Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.” Ng sets fire to Shaker Heights, and the result is both unruly and glorious, a novel that vibrates with the heat of life.
Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel “Dead Soon Enough.”
Penguin Press: 352 pp., $27