Celeste Ng's new novel starts with a fire, which forces her characters, and readers, to consider incendiary questions about families and morality. It's a story in which the best of ideals collide with individual realities.
The opening chapter of "Little Fires Everywhere" details how the Richardsons' house burns down. It's clear it's arson, and it's pretty clear who did it. It's also evident that the Warrens, the mother and daughter who live in the Richardsons' rental property, have skipped town.
"I think of this, really, as the story of two families," Ng said. "And the ways that they get entangled with each other, and sort of stir up trouble for each other because they have very different outlooks on the world."
Ng says the Richardsons are a well-off suburban nuclear family: lawyer father, journalist mother, and four teenagers. There are sons Trip and Moody, and daughters Lexie and Izzy. We don't learn the parents' first names until later. And there are the Warrens: single mother Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl, who soon becomes Moody's friend and infatuation.
"You've got the Richardsons, who are tied to this community, who are very order- and rule-focused," said Ng. "And then you've got Mia Warren and her daughter, who don't follow those same rules, who are kind of free spirits, and who are a little bit secretive. They think there's a way that they can leave behind things in their past, whereas of course the Richardsons are really tied to this whole idea of past and legacy."
The families meet when the Warrens, who have already lived in dozens of communities over the years, move to Shaker Heights. It's the Cleveland suburb where Ng spent her own adolescence. She says it was the first planned community in the United States. As it developed in the early 20th century, it aimed to become a kind of utopia. Ng says the residents went to extraordinary lengths to do the right thing, adopting strict building codes and developing mass transit.
"Even in the 1950s, when white flight was becoming a real problem in a lot of communities, Shaker Heights decided that they were going to put plans in place to integrate their neighborhoods," she said. "And they went so far as to offer loans to white families to move into black neighborhoods and vice versa."
For a while in the novel, everything goes well for the town and the families — high school hormonal problems aside.
Then it doesn't.
"The question always is how far those ideals can take you in the face of what is really a very messy human existence," said Ng.
The mess begins when Pearl Warren is drawn to the tied-down calm provided by Mrs. Richardson, and Izzy Richardson is drawn to the freewheeling idealism of Mia Warren. As they each begin to become part of a new family, they question how things are done at home.
Then the community is shocked when someone leaves a baby on the fire station doorstep. The authorities can't find the mother. The baby, who is Asian, is quickly adopted by the McCulloughs, a childless couple who are old friends of the Richardsons.
"And I was fascinated by that idea, that there is a difference between the mothers you choose and the mothers that you are born to," she said. "And the idea of the case where there's a baby who is getting adopted from one family into a very different family seemed to highlight all of those issues."
When the infant's Chinese birth mother comes forward saying she wants her child back, the community begins a difficult discussion. It turns out that it's not just the baby's mother who has secrets.
Celeste Ng is touring the country with the book. She will read at the Barnes and Noble in Edina on Thursday evening. She says there are no clear heroes or villains in her story, nor are there easy answers to the debate over what should happen to the child.
"I think that often we turn to novels to give us answers," she said. "But really, the job of novels often is to give us questions that we have to think about, an almost Socratic sort of method of asking us to decide what we think about things."
As she tours, she is glad to see readers wrestling with those questions. In the book, members of the Richardson and Warren families line up in different ways on the issue, and she admits, even as the writer, she is not sure who is right.