The city of Shaker Heights, Ohio has its own official motto: “Most communities just happen; the best are planned.” Some things are mandated by law: where trash cans belong (in the backyard, never on the curb), which house-paint colors are approved (Tudors must be a specified cream; English-style homes can go a little wilder, as long as they stick to “slate blue, moss green, or a certain shade of tan”). But it’s the unspoken rules that prove a trickier learning curve for Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl. A freewheeling bohemian whose thumb rings and messy topknot mark her an outsider as clearly as her single motherhood, Mia creates the kind of art that sells, at least sporadically, in New York galleries, even if it doesn’t make much sense to her new landlady, pedigreed Shaker Heights native Elena Richardson. Elena also doesn’t understand what her own lovely, privileged children see in the oddly self-confident Pearl — or why Mia seems to be taking sides against her dear friends the Wrights in their fierce custody battle for a Chinese baby girl found abandoned at the local fire station.
Little Fires echoes several themes from Ng’s lauded 2014 best-seller, Everything I Never Told You, tracing the fault lines of race, class, and secrecy that run beneath a small Midwestern town. And again, calamity shatters a placid surface on the first page (that title is more than a metaphor). But here, she moves the action up from 1977 to the Clinton-era ’90s and widens her aperture to include a deeper, more diverse cast of characters. Though the book’s language is clean and straightforward, almost conversational, Ng has an acute sense of how real people (especially teenagers, the slang-slinging kryptonite of many an aspiring novelist) think and feel and communicate. Shaker Heights may be a place where “things were peaceful, and riots and bombs and earthquakes were quiet thumps, muffled by distance.” But the real world is never as far away as it seems, of course. And if the scrim can’t be broken, sometimes you have to burn it down. A-