This novel opens at the end of the story, with the Richardson family contemplating the smoldering ruins of their house in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “‘The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,’ one of the Richardson kids said to the others. ‘Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.’” The rest of the book explains what led to the fire, and what was the double meaning of “little fires everywhere.”
There is a somewhat long epigraph at the beginning of the book, but it explains a great deal:
“Actually, though, all things considered, people from Shaker Heights are basically pretty much like people everywhere else in America. They may have three or four cars instead of one or two, and they may two television sets instead of one, and when a Shaker Heights girl gets married she may have a reception for eight hundred, with band flown in from New York, instead of a wedding reception for a hundred with a local band, but these are all differences of degree rather than fundamental differences.” Cosmopolitan, March 1963
This very amusing and ironic passage is reminiscent of the US Magazine feature: “Movie Stars: They’re just like us!” (They go to Starbucks! They shop for groceries! They have babies!)
But in fact, the 1% are not just like us, but it is hard for them to see that fact. When a white male walks into a room full of other white males, he gets no sense what it must be like to enter that same room as a black male, or a female of any color. He generally has a sense of comfort, not of difference or even potential threat. Similarly, the denizens of Shaker Heights have a blindness to privilege and a worldview that bestows an easy confidence on those who have never known what it is like to be free from want or prejudice. As Pearl, a tenant of the family’s, wonders in awe:
“Where did this ease come from? How could they be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in pajamas?”
There is a cost, however, to living like this. There are “rules” in Shaker Heights, both those imposed by the community and those internalized by the inhabitants.
Some of those in this rich milieu feel constraints, even if they don’t lack confidence and the sense of owning the world that being in the upper 1% can confer. One constraint is noblesse oblige, or the idea of a responsibility to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged – that is, as long as it (a) makes the privileged person feel good and (b) doesn’t really inconvenience the privileged person. A second constraint is the one that keeps Elena Richardson, the matriarch of this family, in a metaphorical cage. Elena always feels she must maintain control over appetites and emotions. She monitors what she eats, what she wears, and what she feels: “All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.”
The Richardsons own a rental house in a less prosperous part of Shaker Heights, one of a long line of duplexes. When Elena Richardson meets her new tenants, Mia Warren, 36 and her daughter Pearl, 15, she is both fascinated and envious. Mia is an artist, and works at menial, odd jobs only just enough to allow her to buy supplies and time to dedicate to her photography. Mia doesn’t care if they don’t have a lot of possessions or amenities, and worst of all to Elena, seems happy in spite of it. Elena thinks about Mia: “You can’t just do what you want… Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?”
Indeed, Mia is the opposite of Elena in many ways. Elena grew up in Shaker Heights, and always wanted to return:
“She had had a plan, from girlhood on, and had followed it scrupulously: high school, college, boyfriend, marriage, job, mortgage, children. … She had, in short, done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted.”
Although, not “everyone” as it turns out: it was not the kind of life Mia wants, and her very existence challenges everything Elena has been brought up to value.
But Pearl is not like Mia either. She wants some stability for a change, and with the Richardson kids, she finds friendship and first love. She spends more and more time at the Richardson’s. She is friends with both 15-year-old Moody and 18-year-old Lexie, and has a crush on 17-year-old Trip. In addition, she basks in the differences she observes between her off-beat existence and the Richardson’s predictable, comfortable, and easy life of affluence.
Meanwhile, fourteen-year-old Izzy, Elena’s youngest daughter, finds a mother in Mia she never had at home. Izzy and her mother have a destructive relationship, originating before Izzy was even born. The pregnancy was not risk-free, nor was Izzy out of danger after birth. Elena saw Izzy, who never – even before birth, followed the pattern Elena expected, as consistently causing trouble for her. The three older kids knew their mother always seemed to have it in for Izzy, but the reasons were unclear to them. After a while, there was an unbreakable dynamic, with Elena criticizing and Izzy reacting:
“Of course, the more Izzy pushed, the more anger stepped in to shield her mother’s old anxiety, like a shell covering a snail. ‘My god, Izzy,’ Mrs. Richardson said, over and over again, ‘what is wrong with you?’”
Elena is consistently nasty to Izzy. Mia, on the other hand, is welcoming and nurturing.
So a main theme of the book is: what makes someone a mother? What is best for a child? A biological mother, or someone who can give the child what he or she needs? The links between Pearl and the Richardsons, and between Izzy and Mia, are mirrored in the main source of gossip and upheaval in Shaker Heights, involving the McCullough family.
Linda McCullough (a friend of Elena’s), and her husband Mark, couldn’t have children. They had been trying to adopt, and got a call from the fire station that an Asian baby, “May Ling,” was left there. Linda went all out to welcome the newly renamed “Mirabelle McCullough.” All is going well for Linda until Mia figures out that the baby was left by one of her restaurant co-workers, Bebe Chow. Bebe was desperate to get her baby back, and Mia tells Bebe where May Ling is. Before long, a custody battle ensues. The whole neighborhood gets involved in a discussion over which woman would be the best mother for the baby.
Part of the issue is the cultural heritage of the baby. When Bebe’s lawyer questions Linda about how she will teach the child about Chinese culture, Linda, with perfect cluelessness and convinced in any event of the superiority of her own culture, says she will take Mirabelle to Chinese restaurants.
Elena, also incognizant about the racism that informs her opinions, is adamant that the wealthy white families of Shaker Heights offer advantages the Asian biological mother could not: “Honestly, I think this is a tremendous thing for Mirabelle. She’ll be raised in a home that truly doesn’t see race. That doesn’t care, not one infinitesimal bit, what she looks like. What could be better than that?”
As the case drags on without the expected easy resolution in favor of the McCulloughs, Elena becomes increasingly angry at Mia and obsessively determined to exact revenge on her friend’s behalf. But actually, there is more to it:
“She would never admit even to herself that it hadn’t been about the baby at all: it had been some complicated thing about Mia herself, the dark discomfort this woman stirred up that Mrs. Richardson would have much preferred to have kept in its box.”
Elena uses her skills and contacts as a reporter for the local paper to dig up dirt on Mia, and before long, her vendetta both creates and reveals “little fires everywhere.” Together, the “fires” combine to burn down the Richardson house, both in fact and in metaphor.
Discussion: Although this is an excellent book, I had trouble sticking with it only because I loathed Elena Richardson so thoroughly. But that was certainly by the author’s design. And while I never had any sympathy for Elena, the author does an excellent job shading most of the other characters – especially the kids, with both good and bad overtones.
The story raises many questions that will engage readers. Motherhood and family are treated as concepts as well as biological accidents, and that treatment suggests that with whom we should share our lives with is more nuanced than just a question of birth. The conventions of social conformity and the blind spots of privilege are also interrogated in this story. The role of preconceptions in structuring our understanding of “truth” – especially relevant in these times – also plays a role. Finally, the almost Shakespearean treatment of envy as a motivator and destroyer of lives runs through the story like, well, an accelerant in a fire.
Evaluation: This is an absorbing story with so many layers and questions that it would be an outstanding choice for bookclubs.
Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017