In a Quiet Ohio Town, Who Started the Fire, and Why?

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Celeste Ng

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Kevin Day Photography

Readers of Celeste Ng’s second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere,” will recognize a few elements from her acclaimed debut, “Everything I Never Told You.” There are the simmering racial tensions and incendiary family dynamics beneath the surface of a quiet Ohio town. There are the appeal and impossibility of assimilation, the all-consuming force of motherhood and the secret lives of teenagers and their parents, each unknowable to the other.

And there’s a familiar frame, too: At each novel’s opening, we know at least part of the tragedy that will befall the characters — the mystery lies in figuring out how they got there. In “Little Fires Everywhere,” we begin not with a death but a house fire, and new questions: Who set it, and why?

The house belongs to Elena and Bill Richardson, a wealthy white couple who epitomize success in picture-perfect, late-’90s Shaker Heights, and their four teenage children, including girl-next-door Lexie and the troubled prankster Izzy, who is suspected of arson. “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie says. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.” But Izzy isn’t the only one who seems to have fled the scene. Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, have also disappeared, vacating the small house they rented from the Richardsons. And so Ng again returns to the past for answers.

It’s Mia and Pearl’s arrival in town 11 months earlier that ignites the story. Mia is an alluring Hester Prynne, a misfit nomad whose scarlet A might stand for Artist. She and Pearl have traveled the country in their VW Rabbit with little more than Mia’s camera, living in dozens of towns before settling in Shaker Heights, where Mia promises her daughter they will stay. Pearl, longing to belong, quickly becomes a fixture in the Richardsons’ home, entangling her mother along with her.

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Witnessing these two families as they commingle and clash is an utterly engrossing, often heartbreaking, deeply empathetic experience, not unlike watching a neighbor’s house burn. And the spectacle doesn’t stop with the Richardsons and Warrens. Ng also introduces a custody battle that becomes the center of the town’s attention — a 1-year-old girl who is wanted by both her Chinese immigrant mother…

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