In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned–from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Little Fires Everywhere received massive attention when it was published in 2017, garnering over 59,000 reviews on Goodreads and winning the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award. At the time, I remember watching the publicity for the book grow, and I even read an article that broke down its marketing success. Reese Witherspoon chose it as a book club pick and subsequently developed and starred in mini series Hulu adaptation. Despite all the attention the title was receiving in 2017, I still wasn’t positive what the book was about. I added it to my TBR pile, then promptly forgot about it until I glimpsed it on my shelf a few weeks ago as I was selecting my next read.
Ng’s second novel takes us to the suburbs of Shaker Heights in Cleveland, Ohio, which is a real place where Ng grew up. Everything in Shaker Heights is planned, from how high the grass can grow to how residents must place their trash bins behind their houses to who is allowed to live where. Essentially, it’s an upper-class neighborhood, filled with people whose lives are meant to be conducted just so. Therefore, any deviant behavior is deemed unusual and therefore suspect. When Mia arrives with her daughter Pearl, it’s clear their lifestyle does not fit the mold. But Mia promised Pearl they would finally settle down somewhere, and Shaker Heights is where they landed. But when Mia finds herself wrapped up in a coworker’s crisis and Pearl learns that the Richardson kids are not as kind as they seem, staying becomes more and more of a challenge.
The mini series on Hulu made this book about race, and that’s definitely a big factor, but the book, according to Ng (and I share her opinion), is a study on motherhood and all its accompanying double standards. Women have children too young or too old, they have too few children or too many, they want to focus on their career while raising young children or they decide to be a stay-at-home mother, they adopt or they pay for a surrogate. Each option is judged, and each mother is compared to the one next to her. This natural tension is only amplified in the strict environment of Shaker Heights.
In terms of plot, I loved this novel. Elena Richardson and Mia Warren are dynamic foils of each other, and Bebe Chow and Lexie Richardson work as foils as well. Add in the love triangle between Pearl, Moody, and Trip, then the tension between Elena and her husband, and everyone’s past, and the novel is filled to the brim with enticing plots and subplots. However, the writing itself is what dragged this book down for me. I had trouble connecting to the characters, and I found myself wishing certain characters had designated chapters where we were only in the head of that character for the entire chapter. As is, the narrative was written in a narrow third person perspective in which we were told of many characters’ pasts in a long narrative form that read like a history report rather than experiencing the past in the character’s head through first-person narration.
As a story, it’s fantastic, but I’m not sure I’ll pick up any more of Ng’s work because of how inaccessible her writing style is. Granted, I began to empathize with many of her characters, but not until the final 100 pages or so of the novel. There were several times when I considered not even finishing the book due to lack of connection and interest, but I wanted to know what happened with Bebe. Her character was the most compelling, but as she was a minor character, I was forced to sit through a lot of other people’s stories in order to finish Bebe’s.
PUBLICATION DEETS: Penguin Books, September 12, 2017, 334 pages
CATEGORY: literary fiction