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Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel (New York: Penguin, 2017), 338pp.Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel (New York: Penguin, 2017), 338pp.

Celeste Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, a wealthy suburb of Cleveland that was founded in 1912 as the first planned community in the United States. So, she knows her subject, and you can't help but wonder what her friends think of her second novel that is set in their hometown.

Shaker Heights is a place of order, decorum, and conformity, a place where you play by the rules. You cut your grass, keep your trash cans tidy, and paint your picket fence (but only in certain colors that are allowed), lest you risk a fine by the city. Your kids go to the orthodontist, load up on AP classes, and matriculate at prestigious colleges (Ng went to Harvard). Mom and Dad go to the country club (required dress code). Shaker Heights is a place that works very hard to "avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous." The key to a successful life in this suburban sanctuary (or is it a prison?), observes the do-gooder Elena Richardson, "was to avoid conflagration." True, she "had to give up a few things here and there," but if you followed all the rules "you would succeed; if you didn't, you might burn the world to the ground."

And that's exactly how Ng begins her novel—with a literal and catastrophic conflagration that serves as the central metaphor of the book: "the fireman said that there were little fires everywhere." That's an understatement. Elena and her husband Bill Richardson, an attorney (of course!), have four children, one of whom is a "black sheep," "the wild card," and "a nut case." Their other three kids do what teenagers do, they disrupt all the decorum. Bill and Elena rent their second home to an unconventional and nomadic woman with a mysterious past. Mia is a free-spirited artist (gasp!) with her own teenage daughter, Pearl, and together they do precisely what you're not supposed to do in Shaker Heights. They shatter the status quo. 

At the beginning of the book, Ng includes part of an original advertisement for Shaker Heights. It promised its customers that, in addition to the community's golf course, horse riding, tennis, boating, and "unexcelled schools," a home there also included "protection forever against unwanted change." Ng's novel deconstructs that false promise. Social conformity cannot forestall disaster, not in Shaker Heights or in any other place.

Dan Clendenin:

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