The novel you’ll be made to read at your book club…
The concept: A house fire – massive house, massive fire – causes the residents of a “perfect” American suburb to examine their relationships and find they didn’t get on anything like as well as they thought.
What happens?: House goes up, time frame rewinds to start the search for who might have done it. We’re in the nineties. The house is in Shaker Heights, a utopian garden suburb near Cleveland, Ohio, the type of place where house colour and lawn length have to be chosen from a strict menu. It is owned and occupied by a Mrs Richardson and her four children, the youngest of whom, the teenage Izzy, is initially the prime suspect, not least because she has run away. But also in the picture are itinerant artist Mia and her daughter Pearl who Mrs Richardson has rather patronisingly rented a property in the area to. Everyone falls out.
What does the title mean?: It comes from a comment made by the fire department after crunching through the cinders. The blaze had “multiple points of origin” – little fires everywhere. Who would have done such a thing? It’s also a metaphor for all sorts of interpersonal friction, and the opportunity for reviewers to cunningly use “hot” language, such as:
“…simmering racial tensions and incendiary family dynamics”
(New York Times)
“…family secrets simmering beneath the surface of a quiet Ohio town”
“Brings the novel’s fixation with mothers and daughters to the boil.”
“The only thing that could possibly disturb such a place would be the enormous emotional heat of a mother/child relationship going wrong.”
“And, much like real life, when control crashes into chaos, sparks fly.”
Why Shaker Heights?: Apart from its handy “perfect” credentials, it’s also a time and a place where the author spent some of her teenage years. “That was an era that I knew that I could flash back to really well. I knew what you could have done, what you wouldn’t be available to do,” she told Salon.com. “I had all these details ready, and that was the Shaker Heights that I felt like I was portraying. I don’t live there now; I remember what I experienced when I was there.”
Nineties references referenced by reviewers: Jerry Springer, Alta Vista, Sir Mix-a-Lot, pagers, Tori Amos, Bill Clinton, faxes, directory services
Most quoted sentence in reviews: “It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”
Why are they calling her “The new darling of the book clubs”?: Because the book is full of big parenting issues to take sides over, so plenty of opportunity to argue about who’s right and who can shove it.
What to say if you’re in one of those book clubs but haven’t got round to doing your chapters?: “Her fiction is a kind of laboratory in which she puts her characters under extreme pressures to see what secrets they yield, while recognising that they are frequently unknowable — except partially, from a multitude of angles.” (The Times)
Or this: “Reese Witherspoon is going to do the movie!”
Worst pun: “Mothering heights” (The Financial Times)
There’s always one…: Lionel Shriver (author of We Need to Talk About Kevin), unable to pin down why she’s not keen, in the Guardian: “The temperature never seems to rise above 72 degrees Fahrenheit. When all was said and done, I wasn’t sure this novel means anything. It has a theme. But does it have a point?”
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. Little, Brown, £14.99