Landing on most of the best of 2017 reading lists is Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. It deserves to be on those lists. It is a good family drama and will satisfy many readers. However, her lesser-known, 2014 release, Everything I Never Told You, is an even better book. Without spoiling either story, let me detail three reasons why the earlier book is superior.
First, the interracial issues that are a part of each book are handled with more depth, impact, and precision in Everything I Never Told You. In Little Fires Everywhere, the racial drama concerning the adoption of a Chinese baby, and the decision about which woman has more right to raise that baby, feels less intense and genuine than the manner similar issues were dealt with in her previous book. In this latest novel, the issues feel like a plot device to move the story along and juxtapose the views of the characters, specifically Elena Richardson and Mia Warren. However, the previous novel presents the interracial issue with many more layers; we see its impact on the Lee family throughout the entire book. It shows how some issues, including race, popularity, and opportunity, never really go away. It shows the depth of these feelings and how they must be considered throughout a lifetime. It reminds us how easily old hurts can resurface years after first appearing.
Also, the character depth and development in the earlier novel is more robust. Little Fires Everywhere does have Mia and Izzy, both vibrant, interesting characters. However, the Richardson father and, in many ways, the older son, Trip, are both rather flat. Even Elena Richardson, one of the principle characters of the novel, feels a bit type-cast. In contrast, Everything I Never Told You has an entire family, and a neighbor, with complex, well-rounded personalities. Throughout the novel, the characters are dynamic; they change and grow. The skill and subtlety of the author drawing these characters and having them live their story is more artfully displayed.
Finally, Everything I Never Told You is just a more enjoyable book with greater emotional impact. Not only does it hook you with the opening lines, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” but it also keeps you hooked with the question of what really happened to Lydia and why did this happen. You will remember the characters and the story longer and feel more invested in the lives of the characters. You’ll understand their failures and triumphs more fully, and you’ll hope for a better future for them all. Even the conclusion of the book is more thoughtful and skillfully wrought than in her latest novel. With Little Fires Everywhere, you will root for a couple characters, but you won’t think of them as much nor give their future’s but a moment’s thought as you close the last pages.
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