Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestselling novel, Little Fires Everywhere, starts with a house on fire. So does Hulu’s eight-episode series by the same name, which premieres today, March 18. The arsonist isn’t revealed until the ends of both, and in between are tangled webs of non-stop drama.

Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, secured production rights to Little Fires Everywhere soon after the book was published. The author, Ng, and actress Kerry Washington joined her as executive producers of the series. (Watch out for Ng herself in a scene of a book club discussing The Vagina Monologues.)

Comparisons have been made to HBO’s Big Little Lies, mostly because Witherspoon stars in both, portraying a wife and mother in a wealthy, insular community. In Big Little Lies it was Monterey, CA, but in Little Fires Everywhere, it’s Shaker Heights, OH, an early planned community outside of Cleveland where Ng grew up and knows the territory. 

STUNNING PERFORMANCES BY REESE WITHERSPOON AND KERRY WASHINGTON

As Elena Richardson (Witherspoon) and family watch their big Tudor-style house burn down, Mia Warren (Washington) and her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) are driving away in their old VW Rabbit. Evicted the day before by Elena from her rental property, the Warrens are going back to life on the road. 

A single mother, Mia Warren is a talented photographer/mixed media artist with an agent in New York. Prior to their sojourn in Shaker Heights, Mia and Pearl had traveled light, living out of their car. When inspiration hit, Mia would look for a short-term rental and a menial job so she could work on her art. New schools in new towns are the only kind Pearl has ever known.

Elena is third generation Shaker Heights. After college, she returned there with her husband-to-be to marry, start a career, raise a family and continue the cycle of living well. Ng describes Elena as having “been brought up to follow rules, to believe that the proper functioning of the world depended upon her compliance, and follow them — and believe — she did.”

CLASH OF CULTURES DEEPEN DIVIDE BETWEEN CHARACTERS

After these two very different mothers find themselves with opposing opinions about a local adoption lawsuit, sparks begin to fly. A young Chinese mother, desperate, depressed, alone and penniless, left her baby girl at the door of a fire station. A childless couple (the wife is Elena’s best friend) takes the baby in prior to adopting her. When the Chinese mother wants her baby back,  a judge must decide whether cultural identity is more important than a life free of want.

The story is set in the 1990s and told in flashbacks. After Mia decides to rent Elena’s apartment and stay put for once (for the good schools; Pearl happens to be brilliant), Pearl becomes friendly with the four Richardson teenagers. She begins to spend time at their house, fascinated by their privileged, sedentary lives (and the very handsome 17-year-old Trip). In order to keep an eye on Pearl, Mia accepts a part-time job as cook and housekeeper there. 

The apparent chasm between Elena and Mia forms the arc of the story, but the series also promises to deliciously portray the book’s other complex relationships: between the teens, between mothers and daughters, between conformity and nonconformity, and the effects of race, class, sexuality, prejudice and identity on all. 


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