On an ordinary May Saturday in Shaker Heights, Ohio, there is a new item of gossip to discuss—the Richardson family’s house has burned down in a raging fire and Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson children, is the suspect. All the following summer the residents of Shaker Heights will come to discuss amongst themselves how Izzy is a “little lunatic,” but on the morning of the actual fire no one knows what’s going on. Neighbors and police gather and watch the flames, while in the pond across the street geese swim peacefully.
Though there are no answers as to who has started the fire or why, the public shame of such unsightly disorder on display for all to see is enough to cause a wave of shock and intrigue throughout the orderly, tight-knit community of Shaker Heights (which is usually idyllic to the point of cliché, as shown by the geese in the pond). The story begins at its climactic conclusion, and then jumps back to the events leading to this point.
As her family’s house burns, Mrs. Richardson stands on the lawn in her bathrobe. She had been asleep when the fire started, after a late night awake and distressed over the departure of the tenants at her rental house on Winslow Road. The tenants, Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter Pearl Warren, had left in the night, and Mrs. Richardson watched with a sense of relief as they packed up and drove off. She had then slept in, and awoke to the screeching of smoke detectors. She searched frantically for her children, but notes that she hadn’t looked for Izzy, as if she knew from the start that Izzy was responsible for the fire.
The careful order of Mrs. Richardson’s life has been disrupted. Her late night the night before was a break in her routine; she is on the lawn in her bathrobe, shirking her attention to appearances; and though the circumstances surrounding Pearl and Mia’s departure as well as the fire aren’t all immediately clear, it’s obvious that a major disruption has occurred. Also foreshadowed is the difficult relationship between Izzy and Mrs. Richardson.
The house had smelled of gasoline and a fire had been set in the middle of each family member’s bed. Mrs. Richardson finally ran outside, realizing that her husband had probably gone in to work early and her eldest daughter, Lexie, had spent the night at her best friend Serena Wong’s house. Alone on the lawn, Mrs. Richardson wonders where Izzy “had gotten to” and where her sons are.
Even the fire, which now rages out of control, had a kind of order to it when it was lit. Mrs. Richardson, who might otherwise be consumed entirely with worrying about appearances, is only worried about the safety of her four children—especially her youngest and most rebellious daughter, Izzy.
When the fire is finally put out, it’s revealed that the house hasn’t been entirely burned down—a “brick shell” remains. All of the Richardson children, except for Izzy, have gathered on the lawn. Lexie had been awakened by a phone call from her mother after staying up late arguing with Serena Wong about “little Mirabelle McCullough” and “whether her new parents should’ve gotten custody or if she should’ve been given back to her own mother.” Lexie’s brother Trip had been playing basketball, and by the time he drove home and noticed the flames Lexie and their younger brother Moody were already there. The three siblings sit on the roof of Trip’s car in descending order of age: Lexie the high school senior, Trip the junior, and Moody the sophomore. Izzy, the freshman, is missing, and they feel the “hole” of her absence.
The Richardson family’s lives and familial identity have been disrupted physically and emotionally. The burnt-out hull of their house is a physical emblem of their loss of control over their lives, while the absence of Izzy—the youngest and the last piece of the Richardson family picture—represents the emotional “hole” that has been left in the wake of the fire. The Richardson children, though seeming to have been out and about having normal weekends, have actually been up to—and dealing separately with—more than meets the eye.
The siblings talk about how Mrs. Richardson “is going to murder” Izzy when Izzy comes back, and they assume that they’ll all stay in a hotel, which “the insurance” or “the adults” will probably pay for. Trip laughs, thinking about the “nutcase” Izzy starting fires, and Moody wonders why his siblings are so sure Izzy is responsible. Trip says everyone else is accounted for—and Moody claims he was riding his bike to the library when the fire started—so it must have been Izzy.
Lexie and Trip’s hurry to blame their sister foreshadows the reasoning behind their individual but shared need to have the attention turned away from them at this moment. Moody’s empathy for his sister and his defense of her, too, speaks to as-yet-unknown circumstances which contributed to the larger disruption at hand.
Moody then suggests it could have been an accident, but Lexie argues that “the firemen said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin. Not an accident.” Moody chastises his siblings for always picking on Izzy, saying that maybe that’s why “she acts mental.” Meanwhile everyone has seemingly forgotten about the sudden departure of Mia and Pearl Warren. As Mr. Richardson approaches in his BMW, Trip predicts that their parents will institutionalize Izzy when they find her. Moody is unsure that they’ll be able to find her at all.
Lexie’s description of the “little fires everywhere” throughout the house will become one of the book’s central symbols and metaphors. The “little fires” that have disrupted the status quo of Shaker Heights throughout the past year have reached a disastrous head and are no longer ignorable. With this, the story loops back to show how the characters arrived at this desperate point.