Mira T. Lee’s debut novel, Everything Here is Beautiful, is a moving puzzle of the ways loved ones try and fail to read one another — and how mental illness and the immigrant experience complicate those relationships. Told in alternating points of view, this is a story of two sisters who grapple with their decisions to preserve themselves and each other.
Lee’s prose is economical, sharp, and piercing. But the reason I enjoyed this smarting book is for its sixth sense in portraying the bond between two sisters who are nothing like one another, and how that disparity can transition into distance.
While there is exuberance and joy in the telling, that particular toll of doom rings from the first pages:
A summer day in New Jersey. A house with a yard. The younger one, four, likes to fold her body over the seat of her swing, observe the world from upside down. She circles her feet, twists the pair of steel ropes until they’re all the way wound. She kicks up her legs. The swing spins. She likes the sensation of dizziness.
The older one, eleven, in the kitchen, chops ginger and scallions, puts on the rice. Sets out a small plate of pickled radishes.
Lucia is carefree, enigmatic, intuitive — or as described by her mother, “restless, wild, born on American soil.” Jie, born in China, is responsible and practical — if only because the family’s sudden emigration puts her in that position. Early on, I loved Lee’s portrayal of sisterly giddiness, as in this line of Lucia speaking to Jie:
We’ll be roommates someday in an old folk’s home! We’ll be cranky and play bridge and complain to the nurses about our hemorrhoids. Ha, ha, when you’re eighty I’ll only be seventy-three!
This dialogue takes place after their mother’s death, when the sisters’ grief becomes a strange exhaustion. The scene is a testament to Lee’s ability to ring out candor and hidden depths from the most unexpected places.
Yet as Lucia and Jie age, their roles calcify — one caretaker, the other victim; one reliable, the other unpredictable.
From scene to scene, in the great accumulation of wrongs that can span college, marriage, separation, pregnancy, new jobs, moves to Ecuador or Switzerland, depression, frustration, and illness, the gradual separation of the sisters gathers a haunting tone.
Probably the great coup of this book is in its round portrayal of Lucia — as she is seen by her sister, her lovers, and as she sees herself (both when she is in and out of the grips of schizophrenia).
In stable periods Lucia is keen and observant:
…I met Yonah and fell in love.
His essence? Something big. Bulletproof, with the presence of a rhinoceros, yet still unassuming, slightly comical, like a duck.
Other times, her interiority is chilling:
…a pair of serpents lived inside my head. Their job was to warn me of the dangers of motherhood, which boiled down to this:
If you touch your baby, she will die.
The serpents spoke in opposite voices. If one was soft, the other was loud; if one politely reminded me to keep my hands to myself, the other said I deserved to have my arms lopped off for not listening. They scrutinized my every move. She is removing the baby’s diaper. She is wiping the baby’s bum. The baby is crying. See, the baby is no good. Cheap. Defective. Don’t touch the baby like that! Chop it off. Return to the proper authorities for a refund.
Twelve touches, they said. Twelve more touches. Then my baby, contaminated, would die.
How does a family battle with mental illness? In Everything Here is Beautiful, the strategies are neither perfect nor expected nor do they yield the best results. In this manner, Lee has managed to write a book that feels wholly alive.
Catch Mira T. Lee on Thursday, February 15th at 7 p.m. at Books Inc. in Palo Alto (855 El Camino Real). She’ll be in conversation with Anne Raeff.
The Spine is a biweekly column. Catch us here back in two weeks.