A new book from Celeste Ng—beloved author of the best-selling Everything I Never Told You and the warmest Twitter feed this side of Shaker Heights, Ohio—is a cause for celebration. Little Fires Everywhere, her second novel, tells the story of two families—one rich and one poor, one “whole” and one “broken” (or rather they are both, but in different ways)—on opposite sides of a legal battle and a social gulf. It asks the big questions: what makes a family? What makes a utopia?
Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Celeste Ng: Okay, if we’re being honest, I had a cup of tea and two chocolate-chip cookies that my husband baked last night. Because they’re going to go stale soon, and that would be a travesty.
Is that a normal breakfast for you?
Um, no. (Really!) More typical breakfasts: a bowl of cereal—Life, Shredded Mini-Wheats, or Cheerios—or Greek yogurt with raspberries and honey. Sometimes toast with avocado, if I have avocado handy. And always at least one mug of tea, usually black.
Are there any notable breakfast (or food) moments in Little Fires Everywhere?
There are two brunch scenes, both of which are quite decadent. One is a one-year-old’s birthday party, at which there are caterers and poached eggs in hollandaise and a mimosa bar. The other is at a real restaurant, the 100th Bomb Group, where my family went a handful of times for very special occasions—like meeting my sister’s now-husband for the first time. It’s full of WWII memorabilia from the eponymous Bomb Group, and they have the most elaborate brunch buffet I have ever seen.
Besides breakfast, there are a lot of food cameos in the novel—it’s set in my hometown during the era when I was a teen, so I had fun sending my characters to eat all the foods I remembered. There’s a diner, Yours Truly, where the kids in the book have milkshakes and Notso Fries, which is round fries topped with bacon and cheese and sour cream, and which we ate a lot of in high school. And there are sundaes from Draeger’s, which was a candy and ice cream store. There’s also a dinner at the (now defunct) Four Seasons in New York City, with beef tartare prepared tableside. I really wanted to go and eat there and take notes—legitimate business expense, right?—but sadly the restaurant closed before I was able to, so this scene is based off of research and fantasy.
Most of the food in the book, though, is the opposite of glamorous. One of the main characters, Mia, works at a Chinese restaurant, and because she doesn’t like to cook and she doesn’t have much money, she takes home a lot of leftover food for her and her daughter. So there’s leftover lo mein repurposed as spaghetti with sauce from a jar, and there are cookies from those sliceable supermarket logs of dough, and there are a lot of bread-and-peanut butter sandwiches consumed in the car as Mia and her daughter travel around the country.
Shaker Heights, the first planned community in the United States, is where you grew up (in part) and where this novel is set. The rules of the community, its culture, mirror the story in many ways: what is presented to the street (a duplex masquerading as a single-family home), what is hidden from view (electric meters, trash cans)? How did this place inform the novel? Did you discover anything new about the place because you wrote about it?
I started the novel knowing I wanted to write about Shaker Heights and a family that embodied it—so it’s been an integral part of the story all along. While writing, I did a really deep dive into Shaker Heights history and learned more about the city than I could possibly squeeze into the book. The town, it turns out, is even more planned-out and more idealistic than I’d thought—and that’s very much in keeping with the Shakers for whom it was named. Both of those communities are deeply invested in the idea that you can create a utopia here on earth, and that rules can help mitigate human weaknesses and failings. Knowing more about the Shakers helped me understand more about the history of Shaker Heights—and knowing more about that history helped me understand the community that helped form me, and the people that I know.