Sisterly ties take on brilliant nuance in Mira T. Lee’s shattering debut about love, loss, psychosis, and what we owe ourselves and the family we love. “Everything Here Is Beautiful’’ focuses on everything that is most definitely not, from the dangers facing illegal immigrants in America to the relentless poverty in Ecuador, to the punishing scorch of mental disorders.
Older by seven years, Chinese-American Miranda has always protected her quirky and brilliant baby sister, Lucia. But after their mother’s death, fault lines begin to quake. In college, Lucia starts to hear voices, requiring her to reluctantly take medication. Of course, Miranda is there for her, caretaking as usual. (“That’s not her. That’s her illness,” Miranda says defensively.) But Lucia’s mental state roller-coasters, with intermittent peaks of hope that quickly plunge to despair. Lucia, when relatively well, is able to regroup and write feature articles for a newspaper in Queens and to even have a relationship, marrying Yonah, a deeply loving Russian Jew who knows only that Lucia is perfect for him. Believing her sister is in good hands, a relieved Miranda finds her own lover and moves to Switzerland to finally live her own life. But can she? Or will her love and loyalty for her sister always be pulling her back?
Lucia soon begins to hear voices again, and Yonah calls Miranda back to America to help. But over and over in this exquisite novel, we see the rubble that mental illness can leave in its wake. Lucia wants a job, a child, and refuses to be stopped in her attempt to get them. Yonah is long-divorced, already has two children in Israel, and, in his mid-40s, struggles physically and financially. He tells her more children would be too much for him.
She moves in with another outsider, Manuel, a doting Latino immigrant without a green card who hopes Lucia might marry him so he can bring family to America. Instead, Lucia has a gorgeous little girl, Esperanza, and moves back to Ecuador with Manuel. But jobless, hopeless, confined to boring and lonely farm work, Lucia founders. Desperate to escape and find a future she can live in, she turns, as always, to her sister, and to a person from her past, with wrenching results.
As beautifully written as it is bleak, the book is told from the alternating points of view of Lucia, Miranda, Yonah, and Manuel, but therein is a prominent fault.
From the outset, we hear about Lucia primarily from Miranda’s point of view, even as Miranda can no longer decipher what is happening in Lucia’s head or know what her motivations might be. We don’t truly get to know Lucia until halfway through the book, when Lee lets her speak and tell her own story, and then the novel roars alive and lets us experience Lucia’s illness right along with her. Palpable with longing and grief, Lucia then becomes heroic in grappling with a relentless disease, and we come to understand why she might hate her sister as well as love her — and why her sister might do the same.
Lee’s portrait of schizophrenia is compassionate and harrowing. “When Esperanza was born, a pair of serpents lived in my head,” Lucia says, and those snakes comment on her every action. She calls out “the crescendoing voice, buzzing of mosquitoes, everything too loud, too many words, and she covers her ears to stem the drain of energy from her head, because this is what they want: to drain her, to muzzle her, to take away her power, her feelings, her desires, her will, to shut her up and stuff her into a shoe box and stick it on a high shelf, where she will sit and sit and gather dust quietly like the mental patients of yore.”
Most movingly, Lucia knows how she affects her baby. Though schizophrenia makes her believe Esperanza is communicating with her telepathically, she also is painfully aware of the cost. After being locked up for 40 days in a hospital ward, she realizes with great pain, “I missed my baby’s first laugh, first solid foods, first tooth.”
With expert grace and compassion, Lee moves her cast of characters through the years, ending with 10-year-old Esperanza and a soupçon of hope. “[L]ove is everything,” Lucia says, and in this blistering novel about the persistence of bonds despite tragedy, readers can’t help but feel that Lucia just might be right.
EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL
By Mira T. Lee
Viking, 360 pp., $26
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Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Cruel Beautiful World.’’