Posts Tagged Celeste Ng

book review: Little Fires Everywhere

little firesLittle Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Penguin Press| September 12, 2017| 384 pages| $27.00| ISBN: 978-0-7352-2429-2

RATING: ****/5*

“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. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completely different life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies.”

What can I say about a novel that’s already garnered immense praise? Reese Witherspoon chose Little Fires Everywhere for her book club and plans to turn it into a miniseries. I adored Celeste Ng’s exquisite debut novel Everything I Never Told You. An immensely talented writer, Celeste Ng addresses race, class, youth, perception, expectations and family dynamics through gorgeous, thoughtful and tender writing.

At the outset of the novel, there’s a colossal fire and the why, who and how slowly unwinds throughout the novel. We start with the preppy picture-perfect Richardson family. Mr. Richardson is an attorney, Mrs. Richardson is a freelance reporter for the local newspaper. She grew up in Shaker Heights and convinced her husband to move back to the community to raise a family. The couple has four teenage children: Izzy, Moody, Lexie and Trip. Izzy’s the unpredictable one, Moody [aptly named] is the sensitive and cerebral one, Lexie is pretty and smart and popular one and Trip is the athletic one. I’d not heard of the idyllic Shaker Heights community –sounds like a gated community with its rules and regulations and standards–and this novel definitely provided me with a detailed visual. Growing up, I didn’t live in a neighborhood and at high school reunions always feel a bit excluded [not the only way that happens] when people connect through whatever neighborhood they resided in.

A single artist mother, Mia, and her daughter, Pearl, become tenants in a two-family home owned by the Richardsons, the disparate siblings develop connections with either mother or daughter or both. An itinerant pair, seemingly due to Mia’s artistic temperament, Mia promises her daughter Pearl that they’ll stay in Shaker Heights for a while. How difficult for a girl to have to constantly move about. There’s a romanticism to an artistic life but it’s the mother’s choice and not the daughter’s and understandable that she’d be attracted to the Richardson family’s stability and prosperity. Ng writes: “They knew important people, the Richardsons: the mayor, the director of the Cleveland Clinic, the owner of the Indians. They had season tickets at Jacobs Field and the Gund.” In comparison: “Mia and Pearl got as much as they could used—or better yet, free. In just a few weeks, they’d learned the location of every Salvation Army store, St. Vincent de Paul’s, and Goodwill in the greater Cleveland area.” There’s a moment where Lexie lends Pearl one of her tops and Pearl seems to be stepping into Lexie’s body and into the family by wearing the garment.

To supplement her inconsistent income from art sales, Mia finds part-time work at a local Chinese restaurant and with Mrs. Richardson’s encouragement starts cleaning and preparing meals for the Richardson family. By then Pearl and Moody have become close and Pearl hangs out to watch television at their house after school. In the same classes, Moody and Pearl develop a close friendship while she develops a crush on Trip, a junior and a jock, and longs to be more like Lexie. A fascinated Izzy soon begins work as Mia’s art assistant. Lexie confides in Mia in a way she’d never confide in her own mother. Quite understandable as these are moody teenagers striving to both fit in, express themselves and figure out who they want to be. Most everyone sacrifices something in their path to adulthood or to career success or family desires

When one of Elena Richardson’s oldest friends attempts to adopt a Chinese-American baby, it drives a wedge between Elena and Mia and finds their children questioning what’s fair. At that point, Pearl and Trip and Lexie and her boyfriend Brian are all sexually active. There’s a pregnancy scare to align with the adoption efforts. This is a lovely description of Pearl from Trip’s perspective: “Pearl was smarter than any of them and yet she seemed comfortable with everything she didn’t know: she lingered comfortably in the gray spaces.” Pearl possesses the wisdom of a girl who’s had to adapt to varied settings and too often make her place as the new girl. She’s adept at adapting. She’s observant and feeling. And now she’s feeling safe and comfortable. Elena starts to delve into Mia’s past and doing so will dramatically change her children’s lives forever.

Throughout the novel, Ng deftly takes the reader inside these family’s homes and into the depths of her characters’ minds and hearts. How can you separate your goals from those of others around you? What do you need to do to find yourself and to be satisfied with that? If fitting in means you have to give up your dreams will you ever be truly content? Several times as a plot twist clicked, I had to stop a moment to admire Ng’s cleverness. This is a must-read– a wonderful, graceful and moving novel.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Press.

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MAY Boston-area Book Readings of Note

romantic outlaws

Charlotte Gordon
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley
Brookline Booksmith
Tuesday, May 5 at 7pm

house of hawthorne

Erika Robuck
The House of Hawthorne
Newtonville Books
Tuesday, May 5 at 7pm

18490777

Sarah McCoy
The Mapmaker’s Children
Brookline Booksmith
Wednesday, May 6 at 7pm

23214264

John Palfrey
BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google
Harvard Book Store
Thursday, May 7 at 7pm

dream lover

Elizabeth Berg
The Dream Lover
Newtonville Books
Thursday, May 7 at 7pm

daylight marriage

Heidi Pitlor
The Daylight Marriage
Porter Square Books
Thursday, May 7 at 7pm

Erika Robuck
The House of Hawthorne
Sarah McCoy
The Mapmaker’s Children
The Concord Bookshop
Thursday, May 7 at 7pm

everything

Celeste Ng
Everything I Never Told You
Porter Square Books
Tuesday, May 12 at 7pm

hospice

Gregory Howard
Hospice
Brookline Booksmith
Wednesday, May 13 at 7pm

23316521

Anne Enright
The Green Road
Harvard Book Store
Wednesday, May 13 at 7pm

Heidi Pitlor
The Daylight Marriage
Newtonville Books
Thursday, May 14 at 7pm

salinger year

Joanna Rakoff
My Salinger Year
Harvard Book Store
Saturday, May 16 at 7pm

9780374280307

Barney Frank
Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage
Brookline Booksmith
Thursday, May 21 at 6pm

women of will

Tina Packer
Women of Will
Porter Square Books
Friday, May 22 at 7pm

Mako Yoshikawa
Every Father’s Daughter: Twenty-Four Women Writers Remember their Father
Brookline Booksmith
Saturday, May 23 at 5pm

ISIS

Dr. Jessica Stern
ISIS: The State of Terror
The Concord Bookshop
Thursday, May 28 at 7pm

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STEELE PICKS: 12 BEST FICTION BOOKS of 2014

boy snow bird

1. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi [Riverhead]

clever, stunningly gorgeous novel about race.

daring ladies of lowell

2. The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott [Doubleday]

If you grew up in Massachusetts like me, you likely went on a Lowell Mill tour at some point during an elementary school or junior high field trip. I went twice because when my Aunt and cousins visited from Texas they wanted to go. While you rode on a boat along the Merrimack River listening to a guide speak about girls and young women leaving their families from all over New England to work at the Lowell mills it was easy enough to disassociate from it yet dreadful to think about the harsh conditions these women faced back in the 19th century.

Like the Salem witch trials the industrial revolution and bitter working conditions for Lowell mill girls happened essentially in my backyard and I feel particularly close to the plight of the mill girls depicted in this novel. It’s only the second five-star rating I’ve given to any book this year. Kate Alcott vibrantly brings the stories of the Lowell mill girls to the page as she creates strong, outspoken female characters enduring adverse situations that dare imagine and dispute better working and living situations.

complete review

everything i never

3. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng [Penguin Press]

Anything I write will never be enough to convey the power and magnificence of this debut novel.

complete review

fallout

4. Fallout by Sadie Jones [Harper]

Fallout revolves around Luke Kanowski, a young man with a mother living in a mental institution and a a former Polish POW father who remained in England after the war. Both parents rely tremendously on Luke. Living in a rustic northern town, Luke escapes the familial strain and dead-end choices through a passion for theatre. He reads everything and remains updated on all theatrical goings on. One night he meets aspiring producer Paul Driscoll and theater student Leigh Radley who will influence his future in myriad ways

complete review

visible city

5. Visible City by Tova Mirvis [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]

Author Tova Mirvis writes with a melancholy gorgeousness about connectivity and disparity. When we imagine others’ lives we never expect what we eventually discover to be true. Perfection masks insecurities. Contentment hides dissatisfaction. What is happiness? Our ideal is never another’s ideal. How something looks from afar rarely looks as virtuous once you start to delve into the grit and imperfections.

complete review

pioneer girl

6. Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen [Viking]

Author Bich Minh Nguyen writes about a Vietnamese-American family and its connection to the beloved American Ingalls-Wilder family as seen through the eyes of a savvy, inquisitive young woman. Almost everyone remembers reading the Little House on the Prairie books about Laura Ingalls and watching the television show.

complete review

love me back

7. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce [Doubleday]

One of the best novels in a while about finding your way and developing a sense-of-self in your twenties.

review

garden of letters

8. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman [Berkley Trade]

When I’m thinking about a novel for some time after reading it, I know it’s remarkable. Think you’ve heard all the stories about WWII. Think again. The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman focuses on the Italian Resistance. Elodie, a young student and cello player, becomes involved in the Italian Resistance when artists and teachers at her school become targets for Mussolini’s Fascist regime.

interview with Alyson Richman

dept of speculation

9. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill [Vintage]

impressively creative.

all days are night

10. All Days are Night by Peter Stamm [Other Press]

A popular television news reporter wakes up severely disfigured by a car accident. The novel beautifully traverses past and present. Stamm writes in an effectively laconic and melancholy style. He’s exploring appearances from various angles. It’s a gripping read about art and connection.

review

life drawing

11. Life Drawing by Robin Black [Random House]

stunning writing. brilliantly explores marriage in all its nuances.

boston girl

12. The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant [Scribner]

This is the story of the education of Addie Baum. Jewish daughter to immigrant parents Addie grew up during the mid-1900s in a one-room tenement house in Boston. In telling Addie’s story, author Anita Diamant covers a lot of history: prohibition; 1920s flappers and artists; WWI; The Great Depression; illegal abortions, birth control and Margaret Sanger; the Spanish Flu; women’s education; women’s careers; journalism; civil rights. Like The Red Tent, Diamant depicts history through a feminist eye. Intelligent, resourceful and intellectually-curious Addie is a wonderful feminist character. I probably truly fell in love with this novel when Diamant mentioned Simmons College, my women’s college alma mater in Boston. At one point, Addie discusses her goal to attend college but that she fears many won’t accept her because she’s Jewish. [“There’s Simmons College,” I said. “They even accept the Irish if you can imagine.”]

complete review

Buy the Books

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book review: Everything I Never Told You:

everything i never

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Publisher: Penguin (June 2014). Literary fiction. Mystery/thriller. Hardcover. 304 pages. ISBN13: 9781594205712.

Everything I Never Told You is a heartbreaking exploration on race and identity in the late 1970s. It’s a near perfect novel about an imperfect family. Is there any better read. Author Celeste Ng writes in a sparse yet exquisitely descriptive style. This novel engulfs you from page one and you’ll still be thinking about it days and months after finishing. Lydia drowns and her family deals with the aftermath. Was it an accident or deliberate? How could this happen when 16-year-old Lydia was the perfect child destined for wonderful things? As the family mourns secrets emerge. Ng captures this interracial family’s angst and struggles to fit in among a white Midwestern society with style and finesse. Every character’s intriguing. You want to read and read as quickly as you can yet you never want the novel to end.

Marilyn wanted to be a doctor. But she was a white woman and it was the 50’s at Radcliffe. She met James Lee when she took one of his classes. They felt an immediate attraction: he to her because she made him fit in and she to him because he was an outsider and although she looked like many others in her heart she felt like one. A move to the Midwest and several children later and Marilyn’s a mother not a doctor. She abandoned her career and she resents it.

“It would bother Marilyn, for the rest of her life, that her mother had been right. She worked her way through chemistry, majored in physics, ticked the requirements for medical school off her list. Late at night while her roommate wound her curlers in her hair and patted cold cream on her cheeks and went to bed, Marilyn sipped double-strength tea and kept awake by picturing herself in a white doctor’s coat, laying a cool hand against a feverish forehead, touching a stethoscope to a patient’s chest. It was the furthest thing she could imagine from her mother’s life, where sewing a neat hem was a laudable accomplishment and removing beet stains from a blouse was cause for celebration. Instead she would blunt pain and staunch bleeding and set bones. She would save lives. Yet in the end it happened just as her mother predicted: she met a man.”

Lydia became the model child, the favorite child with her blue eyes and jet black hair. She received the majority of the attention. Eldest son Nathan receives good grades and will be attending Harvard but no one notices him that much. Youngest daughter Hannah was unplanned and thus nearly forgotten by her parents on a daily basis. Marilyn wanted Lydia to do everything that she was never able to do herself and that’s a ton of pressure for any teen, for any child. Just having a parent live vicariously through you and then having that parent push you from a young age to succeed must be stressful, miserable and provide no outlets for self-expression.

“But he didn’t want to remember all the other times his father had doted on Lydia but stared at him with disappointment flaring in his eyes, all the times their mother had praised Lydia but looked over and past and through him, as if he were made of air.”

It’s as if no one in the Lee family ever communicates with each other. Not really. But how often is this the case that later on after a tragedy someone will say they never realized something about someone. Both siblings hold suspicions about what happened to Lydia but their parents just won’t listen. Nathan recalls “how in the cafeteria she sits silent while the others chatter; how, when they’ve finished copying her homework, she quietly slides her notebook back into her bookbag. After school, she walks to the bus alone and settles into the seat beside him in silence.” Yet at home Lydia’s put up a façade for her parents. They believe she has friends. That she’s both studious and popular. That she’s not lonely and isolated and questioning her place. None of them seem to know each other very well. Ng crafts this novel with delicate precision. It’s both a family expose and suspenseful. What led to Lydia’s drowning? Will the Lee family ever heal?

My deepest apologies to Celeste Ng and Penguin for sitting on this review for so long. I’ve only rated seven books five***** stars this year and Everything I Never Told You is one of those books. I fear that whatever I write will never be enough to convey the power and magnificence of this debut novel. So it’s taken me a long time to write this review. But I haven’t stopped thinking about this novel since I finished reading it in June.

RATING: *****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.

purchase at Amazon: Everything I Never Told You: A Novel

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IN THE REALM: BEST BOOKS of 2014 [SO FAR]

daring ladies of lowell

The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott
–Lowell mill girls. a murder. riveting historical fiction.

everything i never

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
–heartbreaking exploration on race and identity in the 1970s.

JoannaSmithRakoff.jacket

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
–Rakoff makes her memoir about a year working at a literary agency in New York heartwarming, relatable and intriguing through exquisite writing.

fallout

Fallout by Sadie Jones
–fell in love with this book about a group of 20-somethings entangled with the theatre and each other’s lives in 1970s London.

boy snow bird

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
–stunning re-telling of a fairytale and examination of race.

visible city

Visible City by Tova Mirvis
–cool writing, intriguing premise. reflection on connectivity, relationships and urban dwelling.

pioneer girl

Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
–another wonderful novel about race. this time a young woman’s connection to Laura Ingalls Wilder via Vietnam.

Cured

Cured by Nathalia Holt
–Berlin patients. painstakingly researched and explained.

fallen beauty

Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck
–Robuck imagines the connection between poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and a seamstress in her small town. Robuck conducted impeccable research and allowed Millay’s vibrant spirit, sensuality and creative force to come forth on the page.

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