Lee’s impressive debut depicts the way mental illness shapes family dynamics.
“Everything Here Is Beautiful”
by Mira Lee
Viking, 360 pp., $26
Mira T. Lee’s impressive debut novel, “Everything Here Is Beautiful,” is a tale of two sisters who, each in her own way, is victim of the same disease. That disease is mental illness, and it forms the yin to the yang of the book’s title because, doubtful though it may sound, Lee’s story is not the heavy lift you might expect it to be.
The two sisters at the heart of this book are daughters of a Chinese immigrant who came to America as a poor widow and ended up building a decent life for herself in New Jersey. Miranda, her older child, follows her mother’s suit: She’s as steady and solemn as a ship cruising calm seas. But Lucia, the younger, speeds through life’s waters with abandon. The hint of their dead father’s mental problems lingers in the background.
As might be expected, Miranda becomes the one with a good career and steady marriage to Stefan, a Swiss doctor. She’s so rigidly focused, in fact, that when Lucia asks her, “Do you believe in happily ever after?,” the younger sister answers her own question with a sigh, adding, “You could at least try to believe.”
For better but increasingly ill, Lucia displays enough imagination for both of them. She marries Yonah, a one-armed Israeli shopkeeper who runs a health-food store in Lower Manhattan. She leaves him to have a baby with Manny, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador. Meanwhile, her free spirit increasingly totters on the erratic, putting her on the spectrum between bipolar and schizophrenic.
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With the birth of her daughter, Esperanza (meaning “hope”), she slides into full-blown depression and delusions. She’s hospitalized, but now, with a baby in her care, the threat of losing Esperanza looms. Yonah is in the rearview mirror, and Manny’s undocumented status makes him a poor advocate. So, true to form, it’s Big Sister to the rescue.
This is the pattern that frames the story but, fortunately, doesn’t define it, because the relationship between the two sisters has devolved into its own dysfunctional form. Miranda’s way of looking at the world carries a whiff of Nurse Ratched: She’s all about getting her sister to take her pills. But, then, what do you expect from someone stuck in the role of perpetual watchdog? Even after Lucia moves to Ecuador, Miranda is the one who takes the call when her sister loses touch with reality.
It’s to Lee’s credit that she divides her sympathies between Lucia and those who care about her. Yes, her book is about the bond between two sisters, as indicated on its cover. But its real achievement goes beyond that relationship and depicts the way mental illness shapes family dynamics no matter how that bond is formed. Manny and Yonah count, too.
Lee seems to understand her subject matter firsthand, as indicated by her acknowledgments and her book’s dedication to “the families,” where she writes, “Let us be humble in the knowledge that one may never fully understand the interior lives of others — but let us continue to care.”
“Everything Here Is Beautiful” finds the sweet spot between the truth and beauty of a disease that can inspire hope in the midst of sadness and frustration.