Classifying Mira T. Lee’s energetic debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, as a story about sisterhood is inadequate at best and misleading at worst. The novel involves a sisterly relationship, certainly, as two of the narrating characters are sisters, but the fabric of the novel isn’t primarily of one color. It weaves in several Big Themes: immigration in America, mental illness, romantic love, motherhood. However, in practice, it’s a satisfying, surprising, multifaceted novel, not easily summed up by its themes.
Appropriately, the prose is narrated by a variety of entities. These include two sisters, Miranda and Lucia, who were brought to America in childhood by their Chinese mother and who bounce from New England to South America and Europe seeking home; Lucia’s Ecuadorian lover, Manuel; and her Russian husband, Yonah. Two sections are seemingly narrated, in third-person omniscient, by locations: Crote Six (a psychiatric ward) and Meyer, Minnesota (a small town). The primary characters are Manuel, a quiet and hardworking man who cannot help but disappoint anyone out of sync with his traditional perspective, and Lucia, a complex woman with a strong will, exceptional charisma, and a difficult-to-manage mental illness. She is extremely eloquent about her own illness:
In Crote Six, they said I “suffer” from schizoaffective disorder. That’s like the sampler plate of diagnoses, Best of Everything.
But I don’t want to suffer. I want to live.
Miranda, whose narrative voice begins and ends the novel, feels as if she is clear to Lee but never quite comes into focus for the reader, particularly in the novel’s second half. Her job is unspecified, her motivations murky. The repetitive descriptions of the landscape surrounding Miranda begin to seem as if they’re standing in for characterization.
Repetition otherwise serves the novel, if in unexpected ways. The jointed, episodic way in which Lee tells the tale finds a binding glue in certain repeated motifs, such as the song “Dem Bones,” which is sung from character to character, progressing up from toe bone to head bone, throughout. Lucia notices a spiderweb as a child in the prologue, and then she notices another at a climactic moment in her adult life. There are no major characters of white European descent in the novel, and almost no minor characters who are white, either, to the point where this almost feels like a playful constraint. Instead, the book is jammed with immigrants of all stripes, all with positive characterizations. As Miranda puts it: “Our mother might’ve said this: that immigrants are the strongest, that we leave our homes behind and rebuild. Everywhere we go, we rebuild.”
Immigration to the United States, and the many forms this can take—from fully legal business owners to those living cash-only in constant fear of discovery—is a strong undercurrent of Everything Here is Beautiful. It’s a quiet callout to our difficult political moment. These are immigrants living their lives, not objects of speechifying, and Lee draws them as human, struggling, unlike one another but invisibly bound. Integrating into American society proves difficult for some and impossible for others, but the tension of one culture pulling against another is ever-present. Lucia, in a remembered conversation with her mother, demonstrates this tension:
But were you happy?
Happy? Aiya, Xiao-mei, you want too much, don’t be greedy. This is too much American.
But you came here to be an American, Ma.
The primary sensation of the novel, especially at first, is that of a short story. The events and emotions are so compressed, conveyed with such buzzing urgency, that it hardly feels as if the reader must settle in for a few hundred pages in order to get to the end of the story. This sensation persists throughout; it doesn’t feel like a novel in stories, like Olive Kitteridge, but instead as if the saga of these characters is episodic, told in installments. Like the telenovelas some of the characters watch: one long story told in breathless segments. For example, Lucia’s marriage to Yonah is the central story of the book’s first forty pages, but then the marriage is over, and the book goes on. The fifty-page section “narrated” by Crote Six is about one of Lucia’s psychiatric commitments, and it has its own arc, its own integrity. Although it’s disorienting at first to feel certain that the story will end in a dozen pages, even though there’s obviously much more of the book left, it becomes clear that Lee knows what she’s doing, and that she’s guiding the reader according to her own lights instead of the guidelines set forth by Harold Bloom. She’s proceeding primarily as a storyteller, and so the product isn’t always tidy or parallel and the characterization can be a bit ragged, but the listener will continue to lean in a little closer, hour after hour.
This novel could have been another assembly-line debut in a publishing landscape full of them, and instead, it feels like something truly original. Mira T. Lee’s voice is not reassuring or simple; it is alive, worthy of pursuit and concentration. The sprawling structure of her novel reveals a sly interest in pairs—two sisters, two husbands, two pregnancies, two deaths—to contrast with literature’s common interest in sets of three. The unlikeliness of the novel’s events, each one presented with supreme authorial confidence, recalls Ann Patchett, except the style is jolted upward by several thousand volts. Everything Here is Beautiful is a novel to savor, and Mira T. Lee is a novelist to watch.
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books/Viking
Publication date: January 16, 2018
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron