Little Fires Everywhere and Fresh Complaint

Happy Holidays to my blogging compatriots! We recently arrived in Southern California after spending a few hours sitting on a plane at a closed snowy Vancouver airport. It finally let up enough to make a mad dash (after de-icing the wings) for the border and hence we were on our way.

It’s lovely to be back home for a week. At the moment there’s sun, a brisk wind and a deep blue Pacific Ocean with little whitecaps across it. There’s no smoke from the wildfires apparent today, but while flying over Santa Barbara County, we could see the “Thomas” fire in the back hills and I felt like throwing a pail of water out the window to help douse it. It’s quite a troubling sight from the air. Godspeed to all the firefighters out there; may your hard work be over soon. Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple reviews of what I finished lately.

Judging by some of the literary novels in 2017, it seems that “child adoptions that go awry” was a popular topic. Most often the storylines involved biracial or immigrant kids who are fought over by their biological and adoptive parents — or where the kid doesn’t feel like he/or she belongs to one side or the other. I’m thinking of such novels as: “Lucky Boy” by Shanthi Sekaran; “Everybody’s Son” by Thrity Umrigar; “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko; and “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng, among others. Oh my, and I keep being drawn to these novels. I just finished Ng’s book and almost dived into Ko’s book before thinking: ‘you know, maybe I need a small break on this subject matter before plunging onward.’ It’s good stuff, but the themes get somewhat similar.

As for Celeste Ng’s popular novel “Little Fires Everywhere” what more is there to say? It was named the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award Winner for Fiction and seems to have been blogged about everywhere. I guess what you need to know is that it’s about an itinerant artist mother (Mia) and her 15-year-old daughter (Pearl) who become tenants of a rental house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, owned by an affluent couple, the Richardsons, who have four kids: Lexie, Moody, Trip and Izzy. Soon enough, the two different families become enmeshed with each other — the kids as friends and Mia as a cleaning lady at the Richardsons — and all seems peachy with them in the perfectly knit, manicured suburban town. That is until an adoption case in the community puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides, prompting Mrs. Richardson to dig into Mia’s past and find out things that offend her sense of suburban order. Oh no, it’s curtains then, with all hell breaking loose.

Once again Celeste Ng shows she’s quite a good storyteller. I listened to the novel as an audiobook and felt it moved along swiftly and held my interest with its large cast of characters and its viewpoints into each of them. I liked too how its themes and characters became intertwined and how it explored issues of class and privilege and what constitutes being a mother from just about every angle. Amid this one novel, there’s a character who’s been a surrogate; another who’s given a baby up for adoption; one who is unable to bear children, and another who undergoes having an abortion. It seems to run the gamut surrounding pregnancy and begs the questions: are the bonds of motherhood forged by blood or love? And are money and class the most important prerequisites, or culture and ethnicity?

While I liked the novel’s questions, I thought some of its characters got a bit annoying — what a heap of busybodies and suburban stereotypes. The story seems steered to one family being more decent than the other — Mrs. Richardson in particular takes the brunt of being the bad one, but Mia as a mother doesn’t seem so enlightened either. Each of the characters comes off rather tarnished in the story, which seems the purpose but made me want to strangle them at times. While I liked the details of the author’s storytelling, sometimes I think it’s a bit over-the-top too. There’s not a lot of subtly to it; most often you know what she’s steering you to think. Still I will continue to read her works — as there’s enough good to outweigh my small qualms about it. I like Celeste Ng’s sensibilities on Twitter too; she’s on the right side of the resistance movement.

Next up I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s collection of short stories “Fresh Complaint.” Granted I don’t read a lot of short fiction collections, but I probably should. Eugenides is one such writer — as talented as he is —who can lure me to read whatever format he’s writing in. “Fresh Complaint” includes 10 of his stories that were written over nearly 30 years. I liked how the collection seems to showcase his journey as a writer. The earliest story “Capricious Gardens” from 1988 — about two American female backpackers who spend the night at the home of a recently divorced Irishman — originates from Eugenides M.F.A. thesis and will make you think about having artichokes for dinner for a long time.

There’s also two stories — “The Oracular Vulva,” from 1999 and “Air Mail” from 1996 that include characters that later appeared in his novels. There’s Dr. Peter Luce from “Middlesex” and Mitchell from “The Marriage Plot” who both meet unfortunate circumstances in these stories — one from doing field work in the Indonesian jungle, the other from dysentery on a Thai island.

Interestingly two stories from 2017 bookend the collection: the first being “Complainers” about a long friendship between two women who face challenges when the elder one gets dementia –which was likely influenced by the recent passing of the author’s mother — and the last story titled “Fresh Complaint” about a young Indian-American woman’s scheme to escape an arranged marriage by entrapping a married man and charging him with rape. This one I noticed on Goodreads didn’t sit too well with readers of the #MeToo movement that’s going on in the country. Was Eugenides choosing a side with this, or writing a story to provoke?  I don’t really know.

Quite a few of his stories involve relationships that hit the skids, such as “Early Music” about a couple whose artistic ambitions flame out when they have money troubles; and “Find the Bad Guy,” about a green-card marriage gone awry. But my favorite story in the collection is “Great Experiment” about a poet/editor in Chicago who contemplates defrauding his wealthy employer who’s having him publish a pocket edition of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It’s quite clever how it plays out and it includes a ripe ending — as does the story “Baster” about a woman who throws herself an Insemination Party only to have the goods switched without her knowing. Not all the stories are as great as these ones, but they were all pretty engaging to me. I was glad to have glimpsed the journey Eugenides has taken with his work over the years.

What about you — have you read either of these books, and if so, what did you think? Until next time, have a wonderful holiday season!

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22 Responses to Little Fires Everywhere and Fresh Complaint

  1. Have a lovely holiday season in sunny CA. Was it snowy in Vancouver when you flew out. We were supposed to get snow here but nothing YET. Still too warm, I suspect. I love Eugenides and Ng so will look for those books.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Anne, Merry Christmas to you & your family! Yes on Tuesday our flight connected thru Vancouver but then was delayed after it started snowing there and shut down the airport. Luckily we got out a few hours later. Did you get rain in Seattle? I think you would probably like these books. Enjoy.

  2. Carmen says:

    Happy holidays, Susan, to you and yours! I hope you enjoy So. Cal without interference from the elements. Those fires have burned quite enough. If only it rained…

    I would like to read Eugenides’ collection of short stories; they sound engaging. Little Fires… sounds good too. I still have on my wishlist her earlier work. It caused quite a furor in the blogosphere when it came out.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen, thanks! Merry Christmas to you too. How is it there in Conn.? Snow? Yeah both of Celeste Ng’s novels have made quite the rounds on the blogosphere. I guess the 2nd one — Little Fires — seemed a bit more accessible than her first one which was quite dark — about a family that didn’t communicate well with each other and tragedy happened. Not sure what she’ll put out next. Happy Holidays.

      • Carmen says:

        Thanks. Ice fell yesterday and today. The sidewalks are ‘soapy’. On Christmas it’s is supposed to snow some.

        • Susan Wright says:

          Oh ice yikes! Must make things slippery. Careful out there. Good thing we left Canada as it is getting clobbered with weather this week. Merry Christmas in the snow.

  3. Brian Joseph says:

    Happy Holidays to you and your family Susan.

    I really need to read Celeste Ng. It sounds as if she explores interesting and important subjects in a very thoughtful way.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Brian, you too — Happy Holidays to you on Long Island. Hope you have a great break. And I agree about Celeste Ng’s works, the issues she picks to dissect are topical and carefully thought out — and her stories about them are engaging. I’m curious what she picks to do next — perhaps she might write about the days under a Trump like president. Hmm, now who’s the first brave author to do that?

  4. I listened to Little Fires Everywhere too. I liked the book a lot but wanted more out of the ending. People who read it in print seemed to like it more than we did so I wonder if the audio affected my enjoyment of it.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Yeah Kathy, perhaps the ending of Little Fires could have been a bit more. I guess I liked the narrator for the audio so I’m okay about not reading the print version. For the most part I liked the storytelling but thought the story was a bit over-the-top. Hmm.

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    I am glad you enjoyed Little Fires as much as you did. Celeste Ng just bothered me more than delighted me in her first book so I gave this one a pass. Maybe I am just a little tired of my country’s personal problems these days-:)
    I rarely read short stories. Too short for me. I like novels. But Eugenides is a powerful author that is for sure.
    Enjoy your holidays in your embattled but lovely home state! Thanks for all the great reviews this year.
    Currently I am reading the new Joni Mitchell biography and just loving hanging out in the world of the singer/songwriter who inspired me more than any other.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Judy, maybe I’ll get the Joni bio for Christmas — my brother always gives me a rock star book. I’m a big Joni fan & listener — so I hope to read it and will be stoked to hear what you think of it. It’s so nice to be here for the holidays. And thanks to you for being a reader of this blog this year. Always appreciate your insights & books! Merry Christmas.

  6. I did love Little Fires Everywhere…and I agree, there were definitely some annoying characters.

    I don’t often read short story collections, but some of the really good authors do it well, like Joyce Carol Oates…and now I’m thinking Jeffrey Eugenides is one I should try.

    Enjoy your time in SoCal…I need to get back down there at some point. I still haven’t seen my second son’s condo, which he had been renting and recently bought. I will take the train, though. I hate driving down there!

    Have a great holiday season, and thanks for visiting my blog.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Laurel. Yes traveling by train would be best. The highways are rather crazy here. I’m glad we share similar feeling about books. Have a great Christmas!

  7. Ti says:

    It has been so chilly in Ca. but today it seems a little warmer. I hope you have a lovely Christmas! We are headed to Santa Barbara on Tuesday if the boy doesn’t have to work. I hope the fires are pretty well contained by then. If not, we may hold off.

    I loved Little Fires. It will be on my fave list at the end of the year. I loved it so much more than her first book. It wasn’t perfect, as you noted but I liked how rough around the edges it was.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Ti, yes it is warmer today, hooray! We sat out on the deck & did some reading. Glad you liked Little Fires — the storytelling of it went by quickly. I hope you get to Santa Barbara this week — is there smoke around there? Things are quiet & enjoyable at the OC. Lovely to be here. Enjoy your Christmas!

  8. Hi Susan! I am thinking of reading Ng’s book. I loved ‘Everything I Never Told You’, although it left sad and depressed. I would still read ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. The short fiction collection sounds fantastic. And if that story didn’t go well with the #metoo campaigners, I certainly want to read and know it for myself.

    I am glad the wildfire seems to subside. I so wish it would go out soon.

    Happy Holidays to you and yours, Susan! 🙂

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Deepika. I think Ng’s Little Fires is less dark and more accessible than her first novel, so I think you will like it. Various characters make it interesting. Happy new year to you!

  9. Little Fires Everywhere is on my list for 2018, but I think I’ll pass on Fresh Complaint. Every time I read a short story collection, I come away at least a little disappointed. I think I’m just more of a novel person.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Kate, short stories aren’t for everyone. I only read about one collection a year but find when done right — they can be compelling. In general I like novels more too. Little Fires on audio is pretty good — this one I downloaded from the library.

  10. Ah, so that’s why you asked me about Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree. After your break from adoptions books, you should definitely read it. The novel does a fine job of showing the racial and gender inequities of the fostering and adoption system. It was well written too. I enjoyed Ng’s debut, but the mixed reviews of her latest has made reluctant to read it.

    I loved Middlesex and enjoyed the Marriage Plot and didn’t know Eugenides had short stories about his characters. Haruki Murakami often expanded his short stories into novels too.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Sarah, more adoption stories?! They do make compelling reads especially when issues of race and gender play into the storylines. I will check out the Benway book. I think you might like the 2nd Ng novel. There’s a lot going on in it! As for Eugenides, it is interesting that he used two of his characters in short stories for later novels. I liked seeing his early sketches of them & their progression. Hmm. He must not have gotten them out of his system.

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