Celeste Ng’s second novel starts with an actual blaze, but it is an emotional inferno that ultimately consumes the characters in Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin, Sept.). Ng, who signs copies of the book today, is working with material that hits close to home. Her story follows the entanglement of two families, the Richardsons and their new tenants, an itinerant single mother and her teenage daughter, in Ng’s childhood hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio. “It was a place that I loved,” Ng says.
Although the book swirls with themes of class, power, and race, it is rooted in propriety, “the idea of what you’re supposed to be doing and not supposed to be doing,” Ng says. When friends of the Richardsons become embroiled in an adoption scandal, the respectable boundaries of the community begin to come apart. At the center of the story is family matriarch Elena Richardson, a longtime local journalist.
“I was really interested in the idea of a character who thinks it’s her job, both literally and symbolically, to pull out the hidden story,” Ng says.
As Richardson is forced to confront that story, her sense of the town she believes she knows begins to change. “It gives you a portrait of the town, and what people think their city should be doing for them,” Ng says. But Richardson’s struggle is also about her own role in that community.
“It has a lot to do with ideals,” Ng says. “You have ideas about what kind of person you are and what’s important to you. And when those ideas go from abstract to real, a lot of the time those ideals go right out the window.”
Ng conceived the idea for the book in 2009, before publication of her bestselling debut novel, Everything I Never Told You (2014). Nearly a decade later, she sees potential for the story to have particular resonance with readers at a time when perceptions of facts and truth are deeply intertwined with people’s politics. “It has been interesting getting it ready for publication in this particular political moment,” she says.
“Even from the first line of this story, there’s the sense that the community is telling the story in a particular way,” Ng says. “That everyone is talking about what happened. But we don’t know if they got it right.” Those perceptions and preconceived notions are what fascinate her. “There isn’t a singular truth,” she says. “I wanted the reader to be thinking throughout about the ways we interpret the facts, which can be determined, into a narrative that suits what we want.”
Today, 9:30–10:30 a.m. Celeste Ng will sign at the Penguin Random House booth (1921).