How many Chinese babies adopted into white families do you need to start a fire? In Celeste Ng's second novel, "Little Fires Everywhere," perhaps more than one. In the small-town community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, everything is carefully curated to reflect the values of the progressive but no longer existing sect that once thrived there.
"Most communities just happen; the best are planned," is the town's motto, and indeed with their perfect lawns, these inhabitants seem to be living up to their vision of utopia. Into this perfection moves fine art photographer Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, who rent a duplex from the Richardsons, an upper-middle-class family.
To the Richardson family, the Warrens are quite the oddity. "Artists," Mrs. Richardson reminds herself, "didn't think like normal people." And that bafflement goes both ways. During afternoons on the Richardsons' plush couch, meek-mannered Pearl spends most of her time supposedly watching "Jerry Springer" (the novel is set in the 1990s) but gaping at the domestic perfection around her instead: "They dazzled her, these Richardsons: with their easy confidence, their clear sense of purpose, no matter the time of day."
This initial comparison between the outsiders and the comfortable middle class is sharp stuff, and Ng has great fun making not-so-subtle digs at the more parochial characters, balancing their myopia with small cracks of insight. "Thank god we live in Shaker," one of the Richardson daughters says after a "Jerry Springer" episode. "I mean, we're lucky. No one sees race here." And later, the orderly Mrs. Richardson — who might have once understood someone like Mia — thinks of "the fiery side of herself that seemed, after so many safe years in the suburbs, to have cooled down to embers."
But all this is mere foreplay. Halfway through the novel, Mrs. Richardson's friends, the childless McCulloughs, announce they are adopting a child: a Chinese baby. Left at a fire station, the child appeared to have been abandoned and so was assigned to the state. But before the McCulloughs can celebrate, it's revealed that the child belongs to a Chinese immigrant who had given her up out of economic hardship but now wants her back.
It's a little bit "Desperate Housewives" crossed with racial issues on a soundtrack by Alanis Morissette, but as she did in the first half, Ng parses both sides of the interracial adoption argument with fluent prose.
"You can tell that when she looks down at the baby in her arms, she doesn't see a Chinese baby. All she sees is a baby, plain and simple," a neighbor announces. "She's a Chinese baby. She's going to grow up not knowing anything about her heritage," says another, frustrated by the seeming complexity of the situation.
And it is a complex situation. As the novel unfolds, Ng adds various subplots that support both sides of the case, in her democratic and gently mocking tone.
But situations can move a story only so far. After some time, it becomes clear that Ng's keenness to write a think piece on interracial adoption is greater than her desire to truly inhabit these characters and their desires. Regrettably, even Mia — whom Ng frames as the artist-as-truthteller — remains one note, reducing the effectiveness of her arguments about showing people as she sees them.
As for the Asian characters, whose role in part is to provide the chorus of dissent against the McCulloughs, they also fall under tropes. Although the stereotypes are sympathetic as opposed to negative (the benevolent neighbor, the desperate mother), they're never afforded the same depth of emotional life — however limited — that the white characters are. It's a huge disappointment. Without fully giving voice to the community central to the inciting incident of the novel, Ng risks reinforcing their marginal nature and fortifying middle-class myopia instead of imploding it.
"Ask yourself: Would we be having such a heated discussion if this baby were blond?" snaps the mother of a Chinese American child. The answer is maybe. The experimental theater director Anne Bogart once wrote that a stereotype must have a fire lit beneath it in order for transformation to occur. For all her democratic storytelling and skillful plot weaving, Ng never supplies the requisite heat.
Nicole Lee is a writer based in New York.
By Celeste Ng
Penguin. 352 pp. $27