Play nice, or burn the house down? A review of Little Fires Everywhere

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To review, or not to review, that is the blogger’s question.

This blogger says yes–even when swamped with work (like I am right this minute) and with a novel revision tap, tap, tapping its impatient foot.

We must read well to write well, and writing a review helps me understand more fully what I’ve read–and understand what I’d like to mimic, and to avoid, in my own writing. Of course, I also hope my reviews help you decide what to read next. Because, life’s too short to read a meh or even a “nice” book.

In Mark Athitakis’s handy The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and the Rust Belt, the critic examines modern literature set in the Midwest. He argues that, while we writers and readers may have caught up with the place as it stands today–much of it post-agrarian, post-industrial–its reputation is stuck in the past. He quotes James R. Shortridge’s take on the Midwestern character of the 1800s:

“People there were seen as self-reliant and independent, kind, open, and thrifty…idealist, moral, and humble.”

Many would argue Midwesterners are still much this way, in a word: nice. (Others have met me.) Ng complicates this notion of the nice Midwesterner as she examines the tension between the stereotypical ideal and the spontaneous real in Little Fires Everywhere, her second novel, a character-driven story with lightening-fast pacing–not an easy feat.

The setting pits the ordered (wealthy) suburban ideal against the inspired, artistic–and even a little dangerous–real. Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the (actual) place is described in the jacket copy, as “a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland,” where, “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.”

Ng does a good job of setting this story against the larger, chaotic backdrop of America in the 90s–replete with pop culture, a la Jerry Springer on TV, Sir Mix-a-Lot on the radio, and the Bill Clinton and Monica scandal everywhere. Zoom in on Shaker Heights, however, and there are the guiding principles that drive this planned city–with its invisible trash cans and neat tree lawns, its over-achieving public schools and college-bound school children. Here is order, a refuge from chaos…so long as one abides by the rules. And the first characters upon the scene, the Richardsons–Shaker Heights royalty if there were such a thing–do, to the utmost. They are surface-y, but nice. Nice marriage, nice house, nice kids, nice bank account.

Enter the rule breakers, a single mother and artist and her teenage daughter–and the plot is off and running.

I hate the term page-turner, but this story was on fire from the first page (sorry). However, the characterization left me a little cold. For the author to examine and complicate stereotypes means the reader must bear stereotypical characters–the type-A, uber-planner matriarch, the blonde popular girl, the handsome jock, the sulky black sheep–until their characters are rounded out as they experience plot twists and turns. So…I didn’t cry for these characters when I should have; I didn’t feel their pain, because I knew them back when they were flat.

That said, if family saga is your thing, this book might be for you. The theme of mother-love running through rang true and provided an interesting examination of motherhood from various angles: genetic, adoptive, private, public, legal.

I did miss a bit of play in the language. A little rule-bending there would have added levity to the heavy theme. Yes, much of mother-love is extreme highs and lows, joy and anguish, success and defeat. But there’s also a lot of play in the happy mediums: the everyday moments of acceptance, when you look into your child’s face and see your own, reflected and real. I wouldn’t trade that for a false ideal any day.

Favorite passages from Little Fires Everywhere:

Later, when Moody saw the finished photos, he thought at first that Pearl looked like a delicate fossil, something caught for millennia in the skeleton belly of a prehistoric beast. Then he thought she looked like an angel resting with her wings spread out behind her. And then, after a moment, she looked simply like a girl asleep in a lush green bed, waiting for her lover to lie down beside her.

The idea that someone might take a mother’s child away: it horrified her. It was as if someone had slid a blade into her and with one quick twist hollowed her out, leaving nothing inside but a cold rush of air.

When the baby was found, she had been undernourished…her ribs and the small bones of her spine had been visible under her skin, like a string of beads.

My rating:

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Have you read Little Fires Everywhere? What did you think?

A couple more honest reviews, from:

The Washington Post

The Guardian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Name your bliss

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Is it weird to mourn your mom on Valentine’s Day—with the holiday’s declarations of love, its overtures and SWAKs? This is love stuff, yes, but this is also word stuff.

In the dozen years since my mom left this life, I’ve become more fluent in the language of loss—and of life. Do not pity this post. I happily speak for me and her now, tell her stories to my kids who never knew her, keep her voice alive in mine.

This is mother-love, reborn, but it’s also language-love. Foreign at first and then familiar—even taken for granted—and all the more cherished when it’s gone.

Who among us writers doesn’t ascribe to “show don’t tell?” We illustrate and demonstrate; we craft a tactile scene. But let’s not forget to tell, while we have a voice to do it.

Did you see this coming?

Call your mom. (Or dad or kid or other love.)

Really, I can’t close without sharing some of the language I love most at the moment. If my mom were still alive, I would call her and read aloud this following passage. It’s from Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

In The New Midwest, author and critic Mark Athitakis says Campbell’s stories “operate as both reportage and intimate human portraiture.” It’s this combination of stark tale and depth of character that draws me to Campbell’s work. But a well-turned phrase certainly doesn’t hurt. Try this on for size, this Valentine’s Day:

From Campbell’s story, “My Bliss”:

First I married the breakfast cereal in its small cardboard chapel, wax-coated, into which I poured milk. Then I married a cigarette, for the gauzy way the air hung around us when we were together, then a stone, because I thought he was a brick or a block, something I could use to build a home.

From my home to yours, wishing you a Happy Valentine’s, a Good Lent, and bliss in love and language, every day.