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Magpie Book Club: Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” + My First YA Novel.

Now that I’ve relaxed my nebulously-defined requirements for Magpie Book Club posts, I feel so much freer to share reactions to what I’m reading on the fly.  Thought I’d pop in with some thoughts on two very popular, very topical books out in the ether right now: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Kiera Cass’s The Selection, aka the first YA book I’ve ever read.

*Picture above from here.

Book Club Pick 1: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Four stars.  I’m realizing now how rare it is for me to give any book a rating higher than a three — maybe I need to revisit the book selection process, or amend my stringent rubric? — as I debated for some time over whether this was a three or a four.  I ended up on the high side because I was wowed by the complexity of the narrative — so many intertwined threads, so many echoes and doublings and mirrorings, and such intricate care afforded to her characters.  To me, this book was about the power of female relationships — about mothers and sisters and daughters, how we define those relationships, and what they mean.  There were so many repetitions and inversions of the image of two women, alone, together: Mia and her young daughter in shadow box profile caravanning across the country together, Pearl and Lexie at the abortion clinic, Bebe and Mirabelle struggling in those post-birth days together, Mia and the old upstairs landlady coming by to care for her, Izzy turning to  Mia for the love she lacks from my her relationship with her mother, Mrs. Richardson supporting Mrs. McCullough, etc, etc.  So many women visiting with one another in times of distress (I have a thought or two on this topic) — and so much to observe in these interrelated visions: Lexie in her carefree teenage youth discovering her pregnancy and then aborting it and leaning on a faux-mother (Mia) rather than a real mother to make her way through it.  Mia becoming a surrogate (another type of “faux mother”), deciding to keep the child at the last minute, and then leaning on the kindness of a faux mother (her landlady) in her early days as a new mom.  The book put pressure on how we define motherhood, especially in the legal battle over the adoption of little Mirabelle, and I applaud the fact that Ng wasn’t angling for any easy, tidy resolution.  She was presenting us with various messy relationships and thwarting simplistic definitions, and it made me think.

My major gripe with the book is this: I didn’t get the fire theme, and felt it cheapened the entire novel.  It seemed artificial, put-upon, a feint to make it all “hang together,” just like the cloyingly cheesy ending where Mia “gifts” the Richardson family a series of artworks meant to represent each family member.  (The book’s over-explanation of the meaning of each of the artworks was an affront to the nuance of its earlier, far less heavy-handed interrogations as to the definition of motherhood.)  At one point in the book, fire is described as “passion” that can be “dangerous.”  At another point in the book, Mia explains that fire is sometimes necessary for regrowth.  At the end of the book, Izzy’s arson can be seen as nothing but revenge and anger.  Um, OK.  Yes, there are different types of fire.  What…where…why does this matter?   This helps me understand nothing about the characters and instead feels like a lazy conceit that “ties things together” on the surface.  The only thing vaguely intriguing to me about the fire theme is that it’s an uncommon trope for femininity — women tend more often to be “earth mothers” likened to water, wind, and other, softer elements.  But, I’m not sure where that leave us, either.

Book Club Pick 2: The Selection by Kiera Cass

Two stars.  OK.  I like my beach reads as much as the next gal, but I could not get behind this book.  I wrote a little bit about this on Saturday, but I was too disturbed by the image of femininity that the book advances and that scores of teens and tweens no doubt absorb to enjoy it.  The protagonist is a swoon-y do-gooder full of troubling paradoxes — she will breathlessly, dramatically go to the mats when talking about the injustice of the caste system and then just as quickly take advantage of it, whether to lure Aspen into her room (“I told him I needed help packing and he couldn’t say no because his caste meant that he must always agree to help someone of my own”) or get dressed for the evening (“I didn’t want them there, but…oh, well, I did need help getting undressed, so I told them to leave as soon as they were done”).  She is painted as a spitfire transgressor, breaking the rules early on by escaping for midnight trysts with her boyfriend and kneeing the prince in the groin (note that many of her acts of insurgence are physical and sexual-tinged) and yet she faints into the arms of a guard and bites her lip nervously as she teeters around in high heels, relieved that her prince will catch her if she falls, all while waxing poetic about cooking for her beau when they get married.

Just…spare me.

Some of the comments on my post made me stop and ask myself why I was being so prude and censorial about the book — maybe I just need to relax and accept the fact that not everything needs to be over-intellectualized, and also, that young girls learn to think for themselves when presented with images of womanhood that don’t jive with their own.

So there’s that.

And I do understand the broad appeal of the form of the book to a teen.  The autocratic, rule-driven government is an easy dupe for parent-child dynamics at home and faculty-student relationships at school, where infractions and regulations may not “make sense” to the teen, and are ripe for being broken.  The fact that the king, queen, and prince are generally benevolent forces complicate this point, as we find the characters chafing at the system rather than at its chief perpetrators, but I would guess that most of the intended audience will relate to “the struggle” nonetheless.  Meanwhile, “the selection” and the caste system make extrinsic the social structures any high schooler experiences: the feeling of competition, the social stratification, the exaggerated and desperate desire to “belong.”

Let me boil it down to this: the book is no more or less problematic than the show The Bachelor — there’s the same cattiness, the same troubling image of scores of women competing with each other over one man, the same fraught, sorority-like feelings of friendship that form between the contestants, the same heavy-handed and cheesy overtures toward “finding love.”  But when I know it’s written for teens, something does not sit well.  This feeling of ill-ease was only underscored when I read the author’s acknowledgments, where she writes:

“I want to thank you for reading my book.  For reals, I love you…As always, I thank God for words.  I’m so glad I don’t have to try to communicate this story to you with my antennae or something.  Words are so delicious, and I’ll be forever happy they exist.”

Um.

I immediately wondered if Kiera Cass was a twelfth grader, in which case, my entire opinion of the book would have changed.  I then did some Wikipedia-ing and discovered that Cass is 37, and that she was embroiled in something of a scandal because she publicly shamed and attacked a reader who gave her book a poor review on GoodReads.

This bit of information (arguably unfairly) made me cling to my earlier protestations about the book’s troubling, outmoded, and downright disingenuous presentation of womanhood — if the author is capable of such catty ill will, well…

I welcome your reactions to my dark review, as I also see in my own review some issues: first, the problem of holding this book over any other to a different kind of moral standard; second, the fact that there is such a thing as pulp fiction, and that mayybbbeeee I am grasping at straws in the over-analysis of this book; and third, that there is also some good in America in the fact that she stands up for her beliefs, scores high marks in the categories of egalitarianism and loyalty, and “does not play” with the catty jealousy so many of the other contestants boast.

Currently Reading: Nemesis by Peter Evans

I’m thoroughly enjoying this bit of investigative journalism into Jackie, Aristotle Onassis, and the Kennedy family.  Evans is unafraid of advancing lurid portraits of the many celebrities and politicians entangled in this story, and it makes for easy, if voyeuristic reading.  The things that happen in this book are downright outrageous — Onassis’ shady and lucrative business dealings, the salacious stories of infidelity that seem so common among this set of people (Ari’s first wife left him for his brother-in-law!  Jackie’s sister Lee had an affair with Ari before Jackie did, while she was still married to her second husband, while the Kennedy family was lobbying the Catholic Church to dissolve her marriage to her first husband…oh my!  Ari and the opera singer Maria Callas had an affair right under the noses of their significant others while yachting around on the Mediterranean one year!), the complicated machinations of American politics.  It’s shocking reading, and highly disappointing (what Camelot?!), and Evans knows how to hold your attention and keep you guessing.  (“But whyyyy would Jackie do this?!”)

Next Up: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn and Answered Prayers by Truman Capote

I had a few readers suggest this, and it’s one of Reese Witherspoon’s book club picks — I’ve found her suggestions can be hit or miss, but I always feel like I’m au courant when I’m reading what she’s suggesting.  The book jacket: “In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.”

My interest in the Capote book was spawned by Nemesis; Evans mentions that Jackie was close to Truman Capote and that he captures many of the celebrities in her social set in this novel, and was intrigued.  I’m finding my obsession with that Jackie podcast has been something like those Russian nesting dolls: I get through one thing, and I’m on to the next.  Where will this one take me?

Post-Script: And Now for Something Truly Random.

+An unexpected source for chic, but affordable, wastebaskets?  Container Store.  I’ve purchased several from there over the years, including this one.  I also like this one!

+Ordering this for an upcoming family reunion.

+Love this preppy madras OTS top.

+OMG THIS RASHGUARD.

+Majorly coveting this serving platter.

+I don’t like how they’ve styled this sort of…ironically?  — because I’d wear it classic style!

+I love this girly top, and this one, too.  Both feel like exactly what I’d like to wear while drinking rose.

+These slingbacks are timeless and chic.

+The hype around this face mask is insane — it feels like every blogger and celebrity is talking about it, and it was even featured in this month’s Vogue.  Has anyone tried it??

18 Comments

    1. No shame in that! To each her own — and I hope I adequately made space for disagreement with my takeaways, especially after my post on “Lowbrow” reading. It dawned on me, too, that there’s still room to enjoy something even if you don’t agree with it or believe it’s particularly appropriate for its target audience. I like Real Housewives! And there’s nothing redeeming about it. xoxo

  1. Just finished the Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. It’s different, Hollywood, enjoyable. Evelyn is a Liz Taylor-type and a complex character I fell in love with. Reading Alice Network currently, hoping it picks up soon. I recently had read The Nightingale and Alice Network isn’t tugging at my emotions in the same way.

    1. Sounds incredible! Thanks, Sarah – added that to my list. I’m disappointed to hear that about Alice Network. Maybe I’ll bump it down on the list…

  2. I love your literary analyses, even if they are in-depth for the intention of the books! Very fun and interesting to read.

  3. I’ve been listening to the Jackie O podcast while on the world’s longest drive to work, so I will have to look up a few books on the subject! Thank you for the recommendations.

    The AERIN platter you linked to is gorgeous, and I now want the whole collection. It goes perfectly with my all white dinner set and the botanical vibe I’m trying to go for! Maybe someday I can get the whole set…

    1. I know – I love that Aerin collection. I have a set of their scalloped plates and am so in love with them — so simple but elegant. So glad you’re enjoying the Jackie podcast! It certainly fueled an obsession for me! xo

    1. Ooh! That cooking book looks amazing! Thank you. I think you’ll find Nemesis riveting, albeit a bit…salacious?

      That’s horrible about GoodReads! I completely agree — it’s meant to be an open forum for sharing what you’re reading and what your thoughts are! Ugh. xo

  4. I’m putting Little Fires Everywhere in the same bucket as The Marriage Plot: books that tightly written and a joy to read and can be recommended to almost anyone. I agonized over the May/Mirabelle plot line—I felt for Bebe but thought May would be better off with her adopted parents, only to question my reasoning there, particularly when Ng echoed it. Ach, I still don’t know! And I hadn’t really given much thought to the fire theme but I think you’re right—it does feel forced (great title tho!).
    Speaking of fire, I’m currently re-reading City on Fire, and marveling at Halberg’s unflagging craft (the novel is 900 pages, and should be at least 600). It’s in the Goldfinch vein, though in a much gnarlier period of New York’s history.

    1. Hi! Yes – the Bebe plot line was gutting. I couldn’t figure out where to place my sympathies; I was weepy at the thought of post-partem Bebe struggling to survive, and equally weepy at the thought of Mrs. Richardson in her house with all of her baby gear, loving Mirabelle like no other and then one day losing her. Both are too heartbreaking to swallow, really. Maybe it’s not an either/or, though: both are equally saddening and neither is right or wrong in their conviction that May/Mirabelle belongs to them.

      My bestie recommended City on Fire, too, but I’m daunted by the length. She said it’s been a bit of a struggle to get through…keep me posted on your thoughts as to whether it’s worth the investment!

      xx

  5. Yay for book club! I’ve spent more time thinking about Little Fires Everywhere, and I concur with your four-star rating. Like I said in a previous comment, your reviews always get me to think critically about different elements of the writing, and I appreciate that so much.

    I don’t think I’ll be trying The Selection anytime soon (ha!) but I’ll keep you posted about any forays into the YA genre.

    I just finished Too Much and Not the Mood, a book of essays by Durga Chew-Bose, which I really enjoyed. I’m now reading Laura & Emma by Kate Greathead, a story about a mother and daughter and their relationship while growing up in New York in the 1980s and 1990s. It has mixed reviews but I am enjoying it so far — I’m about 3/4 of the way through. I’m a sucker for books on the mother-daughter relationship and those set in New York!

    I’m also still reading Fake Plastic Love by Kimberley Tait, which is not so great — it’s written in a very cloying way that irritates me — but it’s the rare e-book I’ve downloaded, which allows me to more easily read on the go, which I like. I have a feeling I’ll stick to paper books for the time being, but it’s nice to know I have the option!

    1. I’m intrigued by the Greathead book — keep me posted on your thoughts; I’m not familiar with her but I like the premise.

      As I said to a friend recently, “you’ll need to pry my Kindle from my cold, dead fingers if you want it back” — I’m a complete digital convert, and I can’t believe I’m saying that! It has helped me read so much more regularly. On the subway, at the nail salon, while waiting in the doctor’s office — all spots I feel like I would have just dwindled away time on my phone! I’m so grateful for it. That said, I do feel I’ve sacrificed something, and I miss the feel of a physical book! xo

    2. OK, so I finished the Greathead book (Laura & Emma) last night. It’s her first novel — I hadn’t heard of her before, either! I came across a copy at my local bookstore and couldn’t resist.

      It was a quiet book in many ways — the writing is good but not especially artful, but the story drew me in and I loved the way the author portrays the complicated relationship between mother and daughter (and grandmother and mother; and mother and friend; etc.) I think it’s worth a read. I’d give it 4 stars, I think — though I tend to err on the side of going higher with my star ratings than you seem to, so take it with a grain of salt! 🙂

      The author does bring up a lot of interesting thoughts about privilege as well … something in which I always seem to be interested.

    3. OK, a four star rating is enough to turn my head! Thank you! Sounds interesting. Adding to the list. xo

  6. So I lost my mind at target thanks to your intel on opalhouse…. it’s insane and can’t get here fast enough.

    You know, I’ve actually been secretly wondering this— why does Jen dislike all these books?? You have such a Literary bent to your analysis, but I rather enjoy that: this scientist feels as though she’s getting a free lit grad school education in the mix!! As for higher/grad school standards: from that YA book excerpt, it sounds like maybe the author should enact some of those herself.

    JBKO is a bit of an obsession for me too, and you might enjoy “A Woman Named Jackie.” I’m going to get the book you mentioned based on your review, sounds enthralling.

    1. YES! I really need that little elephant basket in particular. It is SO good. So many amazing finds!!! Ah, Target.

      So true on my rating scale; why am I reading so many things I dislike?!?! Ugh. I need to unpack what’s happening there. A part of it, I know, is that I want to remain au courant, so I tend towards the trendy, but that is not a good barometer for quality.

      Adding that Jackie book to the list, too!!! It’s a full-fledged obsession at this point.

      xx

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