I recently finished Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Our Lady of the Prairie by Thisbe Nissen and A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith (for those of you keeping score at home, that puts me at 12/100 books for the year).

As you can perhaps tell by the title, my favorite of the bunch was Little Fires Everywhere, although I enjoyed the other two as well.

Little Fires Everywhere is a frame novel, it opens with a house on fire and you know within the first sentence that teenage daughter Izzy has set the fire, but you then find out through the course of the book how this came to occur. Although I first expected that you would mostly hear form Izzy, in fact she’s not really the central character and is jointed by a cast of other women who you learn about, her mother, who is mostly referred to as Mrs. Richardson, her sister Lexie, and the Richardson’s tenants/friends Mia and her daughter Pearl.

About 200 pages into this book, I realized how much it was about motherhood and what it means to be a mother, mother/daughter relationships. It doesn’t throw it in your face really until you realize each of these female characters is negotiating their relationship with their mother, to motherhood, or both. There are women who can’t get pregnant but want to, teenagers who get pregnant and realize they can’t stay that way, women who risk everything for their children, women who punish their teenager daughters because they are so afraid of losing them.

I think I enjoyed it partially because I so agree with this view that mothers are complicated. We all get one, maybe not for as long as we’d like, maybe it’s not the relationship we want, maybe you want to be a mother and you can’t be, maybe you don’t want to be a mother and you are. The world is so judgmental about mothers and how they should behave and what mothering should be and look like. And when, like me, you’ve lost your mother, you first feel so angry. But then you start to see this complexity — so few people have Hallmark card relationship with their mother or with motherhood.

As my mother died, the different people from hospice kept encouraging us to say anything we needed to say before it was too late. And I didn’t say this to them, but I was so sad because for me, there was nothing unsaid on my end. I hope that in her last days my Mom knew that I loved her, that she wasn’t alone, and I did tell her that. But the things that were unsaid between us were all unsaid by her. The advice that she would have given me about my career, about pregnancy, about my babies, about my 401K even. I didn’t value her advice enough when she was here to give it, I was only in my early twenties when she first became unwell and I didn’t want her advice.

SPOILER ALERT. Izzy spends the book finding a mother-figure in Mia, and Pearl and Lexie are also negotiating that relationship. But maybe I like this book because it ends with one mother realizing the error of her ways and vowing to search for her daughter:

They would find her and she would be able to make amends. She wasn’t sure how, but she was certain she would. And if the police couldn’t find her? Then she would look for [her] herself. For as long as it took, for forever if need be. Years might pass and they might change, both of them, but she was sure she would still know her own child, just as she would know herself, no matter how long it had been. She was certain of this. She would spend months, years, the rest of her life looking for her daughter, searching the face of every young woman she met for as long as it took, searching for the spark of familiarity in the faces of strangers.

I love that this passage also ends with a reference to fire — very fitting. And, although this may be a bit of a stretch, the end of this book reminded me of the end of Moby Dick (I know some people truly love Moby Dick, I’m not one of those people, but I do have a BA in English so I’ve read it more than once):

Buoyed up by that coffin [life-buoy], for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

If you have not read Moby Dick (no judgment, I’m putting it in the, I didn’t enjoy this, but I feel like culture and stuff column), Rachel is the name of a ship, the captain of whom earlier in the book losses his son to the sea. Rachel is also a biblical mother, sort of, in the Book of Jeremiah. So, also mothers who won’t give up searching (there are like no women in Moby Dick, and it still talks about mothers!)

The one thing that Little Fires Everywhere is Not Subtle about it that motherhood is fierce and consuming — you don’t stop looking for your children, you fight for them, maybe you make some crazy decisions where they’re concerned.

Our Lady of the Prairie is not entirely dissimilar — a mother of a daughter who is bipolar thinks that she’s finally reached a place where she can catch her breath, but instead she falls in love with someone who isn’t her husband, her daughter gets pregnant (and goes off her meds), and there’s an interesting divergence into her mother-in-law’s past in Nazi occupied France during WWII.

A Distant View of Everything is pretty dissimilar. Alexander McCall-Smith has a very smooth style, I like his books, and they do make you think with the many many references he makes. Particularly in this series, which focuses on Isabel Dalhouse a philosopher in Edinburgh. Technically, these are mysteries, although they tend to be less mysterious than his other series (The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency), and honestly pretty much nothing happens in any of these books. Like the plot of this one is, someone asks Isabel to look into someone’s background, she does, he’s okay. But, you have fun getting there. Somehow McCall-Smith manages to write 4-5 books A YEAR, and I am pretty much willing to read all of them.

Currently reading: Still Prairie Fires, and The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan — trip to the library tomorrow.