"Little Fires Everywhere"

If you pick up this new arrival to the world of fiction, you better clear your schedule for the next day or two; it is one compelling story! Celeste Ng’s (pronounced “ing”) first book, “Everything I Never Told You,” was a surprising bestseller, but she has topped it with her sizzling second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere.”

The setting is Shaker Heights, Ohio in the 1990’s, the upper-middle class town where Ng grew up during those years. She tells interviewers she loved the planned community and wanted to use it as a setting—the dream of a suburban utopia, its rules and regulations, the concern about aesthetics and order, yet also, its openness to diversity. She reports she wanted to imagine a family that was heavily invested in the values of the community and “throw a flame” into their lives to see how people who have the best intentions may not be aware of their blind spots or prejudices.

The book begins and ends on the same day—the morning a massive fire destroys the home of the Richardson family. They watch in shock from the street—Mr. and Mrs. Richardson and their children, Lexie (a high school senior, who’s hopefully Ivy League bound), Trip (a junior, who’s a good-looking athlete), and Moody (a shy sophomore with a crush on Pearl, a newcomer to town). The only family member not present at the destruction of their house is Izzy (a petulant, independent freshman), who, everyone knows, has started the conflagration. Through the smoke, they see Mia, their artsy renter, drive up and slip her keys to their rental property into the mailbox, before driving away with a packed car and her daughter Pearl.

The storylines that flesh out the history of these neighbors are complex and spellbinding. Despite their different personalities the teenagers have become the kind of friends who gravitate toward each other, and automatically head to the empty Richardson house each day after school to watch “Jerry Springer” and trade barbs. Pearl, the bright but quiet newcomer to town, is thrilled to be welcomed into this privileged group after coming from an impoverished and nomadic childhood with her struggling-artist mother.

Everyone in town takes sides when two other mothers—a Chinese immigrant who works with Pearl’s mother Mia and a wealthy, lifelong resident who’s a close friend of Elena—are pitted against one another in a court battle over custody of a little girl. That is where the orderly life in Shaker Heights becomes undone, and it’s every reader’s guess at how the story will end. Don’t miss this great new work.

"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

Intimate. Quiet. Deep. These are the words that spring to mind to describe Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” Her narrator Lucy, a writer with a husband and two young daughters at home, speaks to us from a hospital bed in New York City where she has spent many weeks one spring after an appendectomy brought on a raging infection. Aside from the drop-ins by nurses and technicians, Lucy has been alone for fear of contagion but also because of her husband’s dread of hospitals. Yet one day she awakens to find her mother, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, at her bedside.

My focus on the setting of a hospital and the circumstances of the story is important, because as Elizabeth Strout tells interviewers, it was a critical choice for her. “A crucible” she calls it, a place to withstand the heat of the emotional fires that lie below the present-day lives of the two. Strout plants another symbol in the story, the building Lucy stares at for hours from her window. For Lucy it was “the constellation of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us that allowed us to speak in ways we never had before.”

Lucy is happy to have her mother nearby and is comforted as she talks about families they knew and the unfortunate things that happened to them—a neighbor who fell in love with one of her children’s teachers causing her husband and children to never again speak to her; Aunt Harriet whose husband went out to get cigarettes and never came back. Lucy tells her mother about her older friend Jeremy from her apartment building in New York who made her less lonely. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life and it was always there…”

Lucy revels in the care and kindness of her doctor who visits regularly while her mother is there, and he watches the two interact. When examining her as she prepares to leave the hospital, he tells her, “The scar is healing nicely,” and we readers understand. And years afterwards, the time she spent in the hospital with her mother becomes the subject of her writing.

There is no barrage of family secrets spilling out. Strout is too gifted to let that happen. Instead she gently plants things that suggest a depth to the darkness in Lucy’s impoverished childhood that she never fully reveals—a grown brother, “not slow” according to Lucy’s mother, who sleeps with pigs about to be slaughtered; a brown snake with young Lucy who’s been locked in the back of a truck.

It is the strong and delicate writing of this affecting short work that makes it stay with me long after putting it down.