Little Fires Everywhere

by Celeste Ng

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Little Fires Everywhere
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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

The runaway New York Times bestseller!

Named a Best Book of the Year by: 
People, The Washington Post, Bustle, Esquire, Southern Living, The Daily Beast, GQ, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Audible, Goodreads, Library Reads, Book of the Month, Paste, Kirkus Reviews, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and many more!
"I read Little Fires Everywhere in a single, breathless sitting." –Jodi Picoult

“To say I love this book is an understatement. It’s a deep psychological mystery about the power of motherhood, the intensity of teenage love, and the danger of perfection. It moved me to tears.” - Reese Witherspoon

“I am loving Little Fires Everywhere. Maybe my favorite novel I've read this year.”—John Green

"Witty, wise, and tender. It's a marvel." – Paula Hawkins

From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives.

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.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town—and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides.  Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia's past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood – and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster.

Perfect for book clubs! Visit for discussion guides and more.

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Product Details
Penguin Publishing Group
Penguin Publishing Group
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)
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About the Author

About the Author

Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, won the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the ALA’s Alex Award. She is a 2016 NEA fellow, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2017 Celeste Ng


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. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss. A little after noon on that Saturday in May, the shoppers pushing their grocery carts in Heinen’s heard the fire engines wail to life and careen away, toward the duck pond. By a quarter after twelve there were four of them parked in a haphazard red line along Parkland Drive, where all six bedrooms of the Richardson house were ablaze, and everyone within a half mile could see the smoke rising over the trees like a dense black thundercloud. Later people would say that the signs had been there all along: that Izzy was a little lunatic, that there had always been something off about the Richardson family, that as soon as they heard the sirens that morning they knew something terrible had happened. By then, of course, Izzy would be long gone, leaving no one to defend her, and people could—and did—say whatever they liked. At the moment the fire trucks arrived, though, and for quite a while afterward, no one knew what was happening. Neighbors clustered as close to the makeshift barrier—a police cruiser, parked crosswise a few hundred yards away—as they could and watched the firefighters unreel their hoses with the grim faces of men who recognized a hopeless cause. Across the street, the geese at the pond ducked their heads underwater for weeds, wholly unruffled by the commotion.

Mrs. Richardson stood on the tree lawn, clutching the neck of her pale blue robe closed. Although it was already afternoon, she had still been asleep when the smoke detectors had sounded. She had gone to bed late, and had slept in on purpose, telling herself she deserved it after a rather difficult day. The night before, she had watched from an upstairs window as a car had finally pulled up in front of the house. The driveway was long and circular, a deep horseshoe arc bending from the curb to the front door and back—so the street was a good hundred feet away, too far for her to see clearly, and even in May, at eight o’clock it was almost dark, besides. But she had recognized the small tan Volkswagen of her tenant, Mia, its headlights shining. The passenger door opened and a slender figure emerged, leaving the door ajar: Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl. The dome light lit the inside of the car like a shadow box, but the car was packed with bags nearly to the ceiling and Mrs. Richardson could only just make out the faint silhouette of Mia’s head, the messy topknot perched at the crown of her head. Pearl bent over the mailbox, and Mrs. Richardson imagined the faint squeak as the mailbox door opened, then shut. Then Pearl hopped back into the car and closed the door. The brake lights flared red, then winked out, and the car puttered off into the growing night. With a sense of relief, Mrs. Richardson had gone down to the mailbox and found a set of keys on a plain ring, with no note. She had planned to go over in the morning and check the rental house on Winslow Road, even though she already knew that they would be gone.

It was because of this that she had allowed herself to sleep in, and now

it was half past twelve and she was standing on the tree lawn in her robe and a pair of her son Trip’s tennis shoes, watching their house burn to the ground. When she had awoken to the shrill scream of the smoke detector, she ran from room to room looking for him, for Lexie, for Moody. It struck her that she had not looked for Izzy, as if she had known already that Izzy was to blame. Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there. By the time she checked the living room, the family room, the rec room, and the kitchen, the smoke had begun to spread, and she ran outside at last to hear the sirens, alerted by their home security system, already approaching. Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. He usually went into the office to play catch-up on Saturday mornings. Someone would have to call him at work. She remembered then that Lexie, thank god, had stayed over at Serena Wong’s house last night. She wondered where Izzy had gotten to. She wondered where her sons were, and how she would find them to tell them what had happened.

By the time the fire was put out the house had not, despite Mrs. Richardson’s fears, quite burned to the ground. The windows were all gone but the brick shell of the house remained, damp and blackened and steaming, and most of the roof, the dark slate shingles gleaming like fish scales from their recent soaking. The Richardsons would not be allowed inside for another few days, until the fire department’s engineers had tested each of the beams still standing, but even from the tree lawn—the closest the yellow caution tape would allow them to come—they could see there was little inside to be saved.

“Jesus Christ,” Lexie said. She was perched on the roof of her car, which was now parked across the street, on the grass bordering the duck pond. She and Serena had still been asleep, curled up back-to-back in Serena’s queen size, when Dr. Wong shook her shoulder just after one, whispering, “Lexie. Lexie, honey. Wake up. Your mom just called.” They had stayed up past two a.m., talking—as they had been all spring—about little Mirabelle McCullough, arguing about whether the judge had decided right or wrong, about whether her new parents should’ve gotten custody or if she should’ve been given back to her own mother. “Her name isn’t even really Mirabelle McCullough, for god’s sake,” Serena had said at last, and they’d lapsed into sullen, troubled silence until they both fell asleep.

Now Lexie watched the smoke billow from her bedroom window, the front one that looked over the lawn, and thought of everything inside that was gone. Every T-shirt in her dresser, every pair of jeans in her closet. All the notes Serena had written her since the sixth grade, still folded in paper footballs, which she’d kept in a shoebox under her bed; the bed itself, the very sheets and comforter charred to a crisp. The rose corsage her boyfriend, Brian, had given her at homecoming, hung to dry on her vanity, the petals darkened from ruby to dried-blood red. Now it was nothing but ashes. In the change of clothes she had brought to Serena’s, Lexie realized suddenly, she was better off than the rest of her family: in the backseat she had a duffel bag, a pair of jeans, a toothbrush. Pajamas. She glanced at her brothers, at her mother, still in her bathrobe on their tree lawn, and thought, They have literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. Literally was one of Lexie’s favorite words, which she deployed even when the situation was anything but literal. In this case, for once, it was more or less true.

Trip, from his spot beside her, absentmindedly ran one hand through

his hair. The sun was high overhead now and the sweat made his curls stand up rather rakishly. He had been playing basketball at the community center when he heard fire trucks wailing, but had thought nothing of it. (This morning he had been particularly preoccupied, but in truth he likely would not have noticed anyway.) Then, at one, when everyone got hungry and decided to call it a game, he had driven home. True to form, even with the windows down he had not noticed the huge cloud of smoke wafting toward him, and he only began to realize something was wrong when he found his street blocked off by a police car. After ten minutes of explaining, he had finally been allowed to park his Jeep across from the house, where Lexie and Moody were already waiting. The three of them sat on the car’s roof in order, as they had in all the family portraits that had once hung in the stairwell and were now reduced to ash. Lexie, Trip, Moody: senior, junior, sophomore. Beside them they felt the hole that Izzy, the freshman, the black sheep, the wild card, had left behind— though they were still certain, all of them, that this hole would be temporary.

“What was she thinking?” Moody muttered, and Lexie said, “Even she knows she’s gone too far this time, that’s why she ran off. When she comes back, Mom is going to murder her.”

“Where are we going to stay?” Trip asked. A moment of silence unreeled as they contemplated their situation.

“We’ll get a hotel room or something,” said Lexie finally. “I think that’s what Josh Trammell’s family did.” Everyone knew this story: how a few years ago Josh Trammell, a sophomore, had fallen asleep with a candle lit and burned his parents’ house down. The long-standing rumor at the high school was that it wasn’t a candle, it was a joint, but the house had been so thoroughly gutted there was no way to tell, and Josh had stuck to his candle story. Everyone still thought of him as that dumbass jock who burned the house down, even though that had been ages ago, and Josh had recently graduated from Ohio State with honors. Now, of course, Josh Trammell’s fire would no longer be the most famous fire in Shaker Heights.

“One hotel room? For all of us?”

“Whatever. Two rooms. Or we’ll stay at the Embassy Suites. I don’t know.” Lexie tapped her fingers against her knee. She wanted a cigarette, but after what had just happened—and in full view of her mother and ten firemen—she didn’t dare light one. “Mom and Dad will figure it out. And the insurance will pay for it.” Although she had only a vague sense of how insurance worked, this seemed plausible. In any case, this was a problem for the adults, not for them.

The last of the firemen were emerging from the house, pulling the masks from their faces. Most of the smoke had gone, but a mugginess still hung everywhere, like the air in the bathroom after a long, hot shower. The roof of the car was getting hot, and Trip stretched his legs down the windshield, poking the wipers with the toe of his flip-flop. Then he started to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Lexie said.

“Just picturing Izzy running around striking matches everywhere.” He snorted. “The nutcase.”

Moody drummed a finger on the roof rack. “Why is everybody so sure she did it?”

“Come on.” Trip jumped down off the car. “It’s Izzy. And we’re all here. Mom’s here. Dad’s on his way. Who’s missing?”

“So Izzy’s not here. She’s the only one who could be  responsible?”

“Responsible?” put in Lexie. “Izzy?”

“Dad was at work,” Trip said. “Lexie was at Serena’s. I was over at

Sussex playing ball. You?”

Moody hesitated. “I biked over to the library.”

“There. You see?” To Trip, the answer was obvious. “The only ones here were Izzy and Mom. And Mom was asleep.”

“Maybe the wiring in the house shorted. Or maybe someone left the stove on.”

“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an  accident.”

“We all know she’s always been mental.” Trip leaned back against the car door.

“You’re all always picking on her,” Moody said. “Maybe that’s why she acts mental.”

Across the street, the fire trucks began to reel in their hoses. The three remaining Richardson children watched the firemen set down their axes and peel away their smoky yellow coats.

“Someone should go over and stay with Mom,” Lexie said, but no one moved.

After a minute, Trip said, “When Mom and Dad find Iz, they are going to lock her up in a psych ward for the rest of her life.”

No one thought about the recent departure of Mia and Pearl from the house on Winslow Road. Mrs. Richardson, watching the fire chief meticulously taking notes on his clipboard, had completely forgotten about her former tenants. She had not yet mentioned it to her husband or her children; Moody had discovered their absence only earlier that morning, and was still unsure what to make of it. Far down Parkland Drive the small blue dot of their father’s BMW began to approach.

“What makes you so sure they’ll find her?” Moody asked.

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Editorial Reviews

Editorial Reviews

The setting of Celeste Ng's second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, is Shaker Heights, the storied Cleveland suburb where every blade of grass knows its place and every home is a shelter for lives of advantage and entitlement. The home of the Richardsons is one of just these, a stately manse where Elena Richardson, a reporter for the city's smaller newspaper, lives with her lawyer husband and her four children: the dashing athlete Trip, the effortlessly beautiful Lexie, the artistic Moody, and the rebellious Izzy. Life is good for the Richardsons, the wealth of past generations accruing in the ease of the present one. Elena, herself a child of Shaker Heights, takes pride in raising another generation there, her brood beautiful and talented and confident in futures lubricated by ease and plenty and the good fortune bestowed by those who came before.

It is onto this well-ordered stage that Ng's protagonist, Mia Warren, enters. If Shaker Heights stands for the stolid respect for convention, Warren has lived a life of thwarting it, restlessly moving from state to state with her teenage daughter, Pearl, in tow. If the Richardsons bow to the gods of convention and upper- middle-class restraint, Mia worships at the altar of art. A talented photographer, she takes on makeshift jobs, cleaning houses and waiting tables so that her days are free to pursue her photographic ambitions. If the carefully coiffed Elena is a somewhat mediocre reporter stuck at the less-than-best newspaper, Mia is gifted, her mesmerizing and haunting photographs selling at galleries in New York. Seemingly uninterested in either fame or fortune, she sells only a few, prioritizing authenticity of expression over ease of existence.

The lives of the two women collide when Mia rents a house that belongs to the Richardsons. The Winslow property (an oddity in rental-less Shaker Heights) is an inheritance whose rental income Elena doesn't really need. She uses it as a means of padding her altruism -- "helping" the less fortunate and, in the instant case, the picturesquely artistic. Before long, the lives of the Richardson brood are intertwined with those of Mia and Pearl. Following a landlady visit of sorts, during which Elena bestows much condescension on Mia's work in process ("You should really do portraits"), the latter ends up cleaning the Richardson home in exchange for rent. It permits her to keep an eye on Pearl, who, besotted with plenty and regularity (and the elder Richardson son), spends all her afternoons at their house. As the plot progresses, the youngest Richardson child, the rebellious Izzy, becomes equally besotted by Mia's artistry, making her way in the opposite direction to watch Mia wield her photographic craft.

The intertwining of the families, two contrasting models of motherhood equally possible in contemporary America, sets up the conflict that will drive them apart. Motherhood again is the fulcrum on which it turns. At the Chinese restaurant where she works, Mia befriends Bei Bei Chow, a young Chinese immigrant woman. Bei Bei, she learns, is in the grip of maternal tragedy that began when, bereft and nearly starving, she left her daughter at a fire station in Shaker Heights. She had meant to retrieve the child later, but when she tried to do so the baby was gone.

The baby is not gone. Mei Ling is now Mirabelle McCullough, the newly adopted and much adored adopted child of the McCulloughs, wealthy longtime friends of the Richardsons who had everything -- except, of course, a baby. A custody battle ensues, with Mia and Elena staked out on opposing sides and much of Shaker Heights glued to its details. Ng's narrative unfolds the disparate worlds within the apparent harmony of the community, with the needs of the Chinese immigrant who dishes up their takeout painfully colliding with the wants of the couple who lack only a baby. With the exposition comes the unraveling, the unspooling of the lies and subterfuge that shield the cossetted constituents of Shaker Heights. Nobody likes it.

In this, the central action of Little Fires Everywhere, Ng is masterful, exposing with terrifying acuity just how the well- meaning wealthy, afforded so much moral reverence in contemporary America, can be cruel and even evil. In underscoring how equipped she is to handle a Chinese baby, Mrs. McCullough points to the Chinese art on her walls and the fact that the baby "loves rice" and that in fact "it was her first solid food." Consumption is not just a metaphor here; it is the sum total of her understanding of culture and identity and of the fact that she who has everything is entitled to still more, even to a baby to complete the picture of perfection.

Bei Bei Chow's story, framed in Ng's gripping fiction, is close to an actual one that took place in Indiana, a few hours' drive away from Cleveland and Shaker Heights. In that case, a young Chinese immigrant, Bei Bei Shuai, was charged with murdering her newborn baby in March 2011. Shuai, who had fallen in love with a Chinese man who left her when she became pregnant, had tried to kill herself by ingesting rat poison. While Shuai survived, the baby died two days after it was born. Shuai became the first woman to be prosecuted for a suicide attempt, under Indiana's feticide statute, originally enacted to protect women and their children from third parties such as abusive boyfriends and husbands.

The actual Shuai case was just as divisive as the one Ng presents, with the poor immigrant woman being denigrated as a baby killer and an unfit mother. Non-immigrant others, such as Shuai's lawyer, were threatened with baseless disciplinary actions for trying to raise money for her client. The question of who qualifies as a good mother, and the idea that the state or the wealthy and the white must protect immigrant children from the cruelties of their unfit immigrant parents, are woven through Little Fires Everywhere. In the Shaker Heights of the novel, cultural and racial identity is only incidental -- something to be overcome, as Lexie Richardson's black boyfriend and Asian best friend seem to be doing by ascending class. "Mothers like her keep the cycle of poverty going," the same boyfriend reports his father as having said. Belonging with the white and wealthy requires shedding contrary opinions, lining up dutifully with the Richardsons and the McCulloughs.

The magic and mastery of fiction lies in its ability to extract the truths that are otherwise lost in the chaos of life, the details and rationalizations that cover them up, subtracting their sting. Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere does just that, isolating and teasing out the threads of class conformity, racist fear, and the hierarchies and codes that partake subtly of both. Little fires have become a conflagration by the end of the book: the Richardsons' home is burned to a husk; the McCulloughs' baby is missing, as is the Richardsons' own youngest child; Mia and Pearl have left for another town. In real life, devastation is almost routinely the fate of the far less endowed, the Bei Bei Shuais and the Mia Warrens. Fiction, at least, can offer up its own kinds of justice.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015), which was named one of Newsweek’s Top 10 nonfiction books of 2015. She is a regular columnist for Dawn Pakistan and writes the "Reading Other Women" Series at The Boston Review. Her work has appeared in Guardian Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica, and various other venues.

Reviewer: Rafia Zakaria

The Barnes & Noble Review
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Customer Reviews (51)
Truly moving
Family from the inside out.
- Anonymous
October 26, 2017
Left me breathless,
- Anonymous
October 9, 2017
Little Fires Everywhere
- Anonymous
October 15, 2017
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