When I finished reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, I felt the air leave my lungs and I wondered if I’d been holding my breath the whole time. That’s the effect of this book. It’s pure magic—winding its way through myriad lives and stories and pulling them all together at the end, like a drawstring bag, cinched tight.
I plummeted into the neat and tidy world of Shaker Heights, with its evenly spaced trees and discreet garbage service. I didn’t just picture the characters; I lived in their skins. Their emotions became my emotions. Their histories, my history. I understood their motives. I grieved, rejoiced, and caused mischief with them.
I read a lot of literary fiction and, frankly, not all of it’s good. Sometimes, it’s a difficult slog or it’s filled with writing, for writing’s sake (yes, an author might be able to make pretty sentences, but do those sentences mean anything?). Sometimes, the characters are not fully developed or too much rides on the reader’s investment in a single (not always terribly interesting) character.
In literary fiction, the message—the theme—is key. I’ve worked my way to the end of certain lit fiction books and thought, “Okay, that was an interesting ride…but where did it take me?”
Little Fires Everywhere is so rich and multi-layered, the reader can walk away with whatever message resonated with her. Ng covers quite a bit of ground as she delves into family dynamics, the nature of “home,” cultural obtuseness, and the complexity of relationships. It’s a book about mothers and daughters. It’s a book about starting over from scratch—a fresh canvas in front of you, a paintbrush in hand.
But, for me, the most remarkable thing about this book wasn’t the lovely characters, realistic setting, or engaging themes. It was the way Ng so effortlessly and exquisitely broke all the rules.In Little Fires Everywhere, Ng effortlessly and exquisitely breaks all the rules. Click To Tweet
Any writing group worth its salt will advise against the following:
- Overuse of exposition
- Changing point of view, mid-scene
- Using too many adverbs
- Over-explaining a character’s backstory
Ng casually flips these literary “no-nos” the bird and does them all. Masterfully.
When a green writer changes from one character’s point of view to another’s, it’s often jarring. It takes you out of the flow of the scene and makes you go, “whoa, whoa, whoa…I thought we were in Julia’s head, but now we’re in Carl’s? What happened?”
When Ng changes point of view, it’s effortless. Her omniscient narrator hovers above each character like a hummingbird. When the narrator wants to reveal the inner thoughts or feelings of that character, it quietly dips into their head, feeds on the nectar for a while, then flies back out—so smooth, you don’t notice the transition unless you’re looking for it.
Exposition? There’s a lot of it. We dig deep into character’s lives, the intricacies of the setting, the daily goings on of Shaker Heights. Ng tells us about Mia’s past art projects, Pearl’s childhood fantasy of becoming a girl with dozens of dresses and toy ponies, Mrs. Richardson’s difficult pregnancy with Izzy. These details are often told to us, instead of shown (a common critique in writing groups is “show, don’t tell”). But it works. Since the book is a giant flashback (another writing no-no!), we need the omniscient narrator to pull events from the past and spread them in front of us.
Think of a florist pulling flowers for a bouquet—he will only select the flowers that match the theme, palette, and style. That’s precisely what Ng (or, more accurately, her narrator) does. She pulls relevant details from each character’s past and arranges them in front of us. Normally, the reader is expected to pick their own flowers along the way, but Ng does it for us, and she does it beautifully.
Although this book is brimming with character and setting details, they all matter and they all connect in the end. Even Mr. Yang, a seemingly minor character, plays a valuable role. He is someone Mrs. Richardson feels sorry for— one of the sheep she attempts to shepherd within her low-cost rental property—and he acts as a harbinger of the larger cultural and socioeconomic struggle to come.
How does Ng get away with exposition, adverbs, flashbacks, and POV switches without sounding like an amateur writer?
Because she’s a master and, as a master, she gets to break the rules to a certain degree. Her command of language allows her to include well-placed adverbs. Her understanding of POV allows her to smoothly pluck us from one character’s head and drop us into another.
And, another thing: She creates such rich, multi-sensory scenes that it’s impossible to not be drawn in. At one point, I found myself plunked down on the Richardson’s gigantic sofa, softly tiptoeing between Trip, Lexie, and Pearl’s thoughts…and I hardly noticed. I could hear the pop-hiss as Lexie opened another diet Coke; I could see Jerry Springer playing on T.V; and I could smell Mrs. Richardson’s newly baked cookies. Immersed in this layered world, why wouldn’t I have access to everyone’s thoughts?
Ng’s style isn’t for everyone, but for her—and her three-dimensional world—it makes sense. In Little Fires Everywhere, she didn’t make us hardtack biscuits; she baked a seven-layered mirror-glazed cake with a clutch of live doves inside.
Kate Bitters is a Minneapolis-based author and freelance writer. She is the author of Elmer Left, Ten Thousand Lines, and He Found Me. One of her proudest/nerdiest moments was when Neil Gaiman read one of her short stories on stage at the Fitzgerald Theater.