Can you be perfect? Can you force it upon yourself? Your children? Your block? Your town?

Of course not, which is one of the main themes running through Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I loved it, perhaps because I also love mess, especially mess that springs up in the face of strong, sometimes cruel opposition.

The multiple narratives of the book flow from two women: Elena Richardson and Mia Warren. Elena lives a well manicured life: she met her husband in college, had four kids, has a tidy job, and a large, beautiful home. Mia is a wandering artist who wanders into Shaker Heights, Ohio with her daughter Pearl, and rents a condo from the Richardsons.

We know from the start that things don’t end well. The book opens with the Richardson house on fire, started by someone setting “little fires everywhere.” Which is really what the book is about. Despite Elena’s striving for the perfect life, everything is burning around her — in her own home, and in their planned, progressive community of Shaker Heights.

I thought Ng made up Shaker Heights for the book, but it’s real, and she moved there with her family when she was nine years old. In a Q&A at the end of the book, Ng said “as I researched, I learned more about the history of the city and how deeply ingrained the idealism is: right from the beginning, Shaker Heights wanted to be a little utopia, and they take that more seriously than any community I’ve ever seen.” It’s not perfect, but it’s not evil, either. There’s been a race relations group at the high school for decades. But no matter how had a group (the residents) or a person (Elena) tries to force perfect, people are just too imperfect to be contained.

The book is about motherhood in some surprising ways, but I don’t want to spoil it. I knew nothing about the book except that it was made into a Hulu series. I also tore through it, reading most of the book on a train ride to and from Washington, D.C. I recommend it if you are also looking to sink into a book about messy people as an escape from [waves hands] right now.

Nail polish: Peach Side Babe by Essie.

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Jen Miller

Jen Miller

Jen A. Miller is a an author and freelance writer. Her memoir, Running a Love Story, was a Philadelphia Inquirer best book of the year. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, SELF, Buzzfeed and the Guardian, among others.

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