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In Celeste Ng's new novel Little Fires Everywhere, motherhood is a battlefield

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng Penguin Press

The image at the center of Little Fires Everywhere, a claustrophobic and compelling new novel from Everything I Never Told You author Celeste Ng, is a photograph of a mother and child. The mother is gazing down at her infant child, “totally and utterly absorbed,” while her beauty rolls “off her in waves, like heat; the very image of her in the photograph seemed to glow.” The photograph is called Virgin and Child #1, and it becomes the key for discovering the hidden past of one of Ng’s most mysterious characters. It also functions as a metaphor for the book as a whole.

Little Fires Everywhere invests all of its emotional energies in the relationship between mothers and their children. The mothers in the book are smitten by their children, then they embrace their children, and then they cage them; the children by turns wallow in their mother’s love and reject it. It’s a physical and tactile love, and the only true locus of libidinal energies in this world. The fathers are barely present; the children might as well be the result of a virgin birth. All of the mothers’ beauty, their warmth and their coldness, are reserved for their intimate, treacherous relationships with their offspring.

The central mothers in question here are Elena Richardson, a WASP who rules her pleasant Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights as elegantly as she rules her husband and her four children, and Mia Warren, a bohemian photographer who has traveled across the country with her teenage daughter as she’s moved from city to city in search of new subjects.

Mrs. Richardson — who is nearly always Mrs. Richardson, only occasionally Elena — is Mia’s landlord: She owns a small apartment and rents it out below market rate to tenants she feels are deserving and would benefit from her help. Mia, she decides, is both deserving and, as an artist and hence an alien being, worthy of further study, so she insists that Mia take a job as her part-time housekeeper as well. The patronizing sense of noblesse oblige that forms between the two women becomes a shadow of the mother/child relationships that form the heart of the story, with Mrs. Richardson struggling to control and mold Mia as if Mia were a rebellious child, and Mia quietly shaking off Mrs. Richardson’s attentions wherever possible.

Their relationships with their actual children are no less complicated. Mrs. Richardson watches her three eldest with an affectionate lack of interest, but her youngest, high school freshman Izzy, terrifies her: Izzy was a difficult birth, premature, and Mrs. Richardson has never stopped fearing that something terrible will happen to her. “Every time Mrs. Richardson looked at Izzy,” Ng writes, “that feeling of things spiraling out of control coiled around her again, like a muscle she didn’t know how to unclench.”

For her part, Izzy responds to Mrs. Richardson’s frantic surveillance by lashing out like a baby riot grrrl, clomping around the house in big black boots and blasting Tori Amos from her room. (This book takes place in 1998.) Their relationship develops into a feedback loop, Ng writes, in a beautifully apt description of how family relationships become entrenched without anyone ever quite realizing it. “The feeling coalesced in all of them: Izzy pushing, her mother restraining, and after a time no one could remember how the dynamic had started, only that it had existed always.”

Mia, meanwhile, has created a jealously exclusive relationship with her own daughter, Pearl. The two have spent Pearl’s entire life — most of Mia’s adult life — traveling around the country with nothing but Mia’s car and their few possessions, often sharing one bed, with “an intense comfort in being close together, like small animals sheltered deep in their den.”

Inevitably, Izzy is drawn to Mia and her reckless bohemian convention-breaking, while Pearl falls deeply in love with the comfort and stability of the Richardson house. And inevitably, both Pearl and Mrs. Richardson experience each daughter’s flight as a profound betrayal, a rejection more intimate than anything else in the world could possibly be.

All of these betrayals and rejections are going down in Ng’s precisely rendered perfect suburb: Shaker Heights, a “planned community” of immaculate lawns and strict aesthetic rules, in which houses must be either Tudor, English, or French style, and may be painted only one of three permitted colors. It’s a thoroughly domesticated town.

The only thing that could possibly disturb such a place would be the enormous emotional heat of a mother/child relationship going wrong.