Everything Here Is Beautiful: A Novel

  • By Mira T. Lee
  • Pamela Dorman Books
  • 368 pp.

A tender portrayal of the effects of mental illness on a woman and the people who love her.

Too often, the mentally ill are portrayed in literature as evil villains bent upon bringing unspeakable harm to unsuspecting, rational people. Mira T. Lee’s debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, counters that harmful stereotype with her sensitive portrayal of Lucia, a vivacious, intelligent, and creative woman afflicted with an illness about whose diagnosis “doctors could never agree, whether it was schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or something on the spectrum in between.”

Lucia’s condition takes a terrible toll on those who love her, especially her older sister, Miranda, who becomes her caretaker after their mother dies of lung cancer. Their father died shortly before Miranda and her mother, pregnant with Lucia, emigrated to the United States from China.

The story begins when Lucia marries “a one-armed Russian Jew” named Yonah. They have a happy life running a health-food store in the East Village in New York. But gradually, Lucia, who has already been hospitalized once, slips into a psychotic episode.

Yonah doesn’t trust doctors and hospitals, believing that they — and not Lucia’s mental illness — are the problem. Determined to have a baby, Lucia moves out, but soon ends up hospitalized against her will. Miranda moves to Switzerland with her boyfriend, whom she later marries. Lucia becomes housemates with a group of undocumented Ecuadoreans, then gets pregnant by one of them, a sexy young thing named Manuel.

And that’s just the first chapter.

The story sprawls out from there. While Lee’s prose is unfailingly lovely and compelling, the distractions to the main story accumulate. The narrative not only seeks to encompass the devastating effects of mental illness, but also the immigrant experience, both legal and illegal; parenthood; sisterhood; expatriate life in Switzerland and Ecuador; infidelity; cancer; family secrets; and the challenges of the working mother.

Presumably, the author’s intent in providing such a richly detailed narrative is to show that mental illness does not define a person. But the reader doesn’t want the backstory and peripheral dramas of every person who Lucia encounters. We don’t need to know that the young clerk at the grocery store gets a hard-on when he rings up two sticks of butter for Lucia, or the particulars of a minor friend’s postpartum depression and divorce.

The narration alternates among Miranda, Manuel, Lucia, and Yonah, sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third. A stay in the mental ward is told by a chorus of voices, including various members of the hospital staff.

Lee captures each distinct voice perfectly, down to Yonah’s Russian accent and the lack of nuance in Manuel’s thoughts. But the profusion of narrators and their competing accounts diffuses rather than magnifies the plot.

The story is at its strongest when it sticks with Lucia and Manuel, describing the life they share first in a small town on the Hudson River and then in a tiny hamlet in Ecuador, where they raise their daughter in primitive conditions under the prying eyes of Manuel’s large, tight-knit family.

Lucia struggles to fulfill her maternal obligations, adjust to a much slower pace of life, be true to her journalism career, and maintain her mental health, while Manuel endures the disapproval of his extended family for his strange “chinita” wife, spies on Lucia to make sure she is taking her pills, and has sex with a bevy of young women.

Everyone involved in Lucia’s life wants to do the right thing for her, but there is no magic cure for mental illness. The pills have debilitating side effects, and Lucia would prefer not to take them. Miranda and Manuel live in fear that she will stop, constantly watching for signs of an impending psychotic episode.

Lucia resents their vigilance and their constant admonitions for her to take care of herself. “Pills, pills, pills. Always the pills. The pills like a leash around her neck and everyone with a hand to pull.”

When Lucia seems on the verge of another breakdown, both Miranda and Manuel realize that they have come to find it “impossible to distinguish which parts of Lucia fell under her own jurisdiction and which belonged to her illness.” Is Lucia acting erratically because she hasn’t been taking her meds, or is it just Lucia being her adventurous, inquisitive, free-spirited self?

With this tender, beautifully written novel, Mira Lee seeks to erase the stigma of mental illness by portraying it as a debilitating malady whose sufferers should be treated with the same dignity and sympathy as any other victim of a chronic illness.

Alice Stephens writes a regular column for the Independent, Alice in Wordland. She is leading a workshop on “How to Write a Book Review That’s Not Boring” at The Writer’s Center from Jan. 25 to Feb. 22, 2018.

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