One of the only certainties informed readers can usually expect from a debut novel is that its reach will most always exceed its grasp. This pithy observation from poet Robert Browning has regularly been applied to writers of all sorts whose first major efforts incorporate everything in a package that seems manageable but too often proves expansive and wide-reaching for no real purpose. Mira T. Lee’s debut novel Everything Here Is Beautiful is one of those thick beach-read types of stories that balances somewhat perilously between the type of book we devour during a summer vacation when nothing and nobody else is making demands on our time, and a tightly structured and gripping literary story with promises for the author’s future. Sometimes a book that aspires to plant its flag in that middle ground will have trouble demonstrating its legitimacy for citizenship in either land.
At its surface, Everything Here Is Beautiful tells the story of two sisters, Miranda and Lucia Bok. They are two daughters of a Chinese immigrant mother, Lucia is the younger, more impulsive sister. In the first chapter (each are named for a sister and sometimes the men in their lives) we learn that Lucia has gone off to “…marry a one-armed Jew” named Yonah. He runs a Health Food store. The action is quick in the early pages. Their mother dies, Lucia marries Yonah, and the madness starts to settle. Wisely, Lee understands that the madness needs to be doled out gradually, very carefully. It’s an infection and a sort of mental cancer that builds and grows stronger because it’s ignored and disregarded, swept under the rug to be considered at a later date.
Miranda, the stronger sister, the more stable woman, moves to Switzerland to start a life with her husband Stefan. Lucia, impatient and impulsive, decides she wants a child. She leaves her husband and hooks up with Manuel, a younger Ecuadorian. Lucia moves in with Manuel and shares the house with him and ten other immigrants. They have a child, and life moves on. For Manuel, though, there were problems. Family baggage can get complicated if your status in the very land where you want to make your life is tenuous at best:
“I didn’t really believe it. There was no sign of this human supposedly growing inside her. No proof it belonged to me… I wondered if I loved her, but it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that should take so much thinking.”
There are complications with Manuel. There’s Fredy, a family member, who needs help. There are others as well. Lee is juggling a lot of material here, with issues of assimilation, cultural identity, madness, love and appeasement, and accommodation. It’s an example of aspirations and ambitions that come from Lee expanding her 2009 short story “While We Waited”, a fictionalized account of her mother’s final weeks, which appeared in the Southern Review (Spring 2009).
The reader can’t help but applaud Lee’s ambition and desire to tell a strong story, but it gets crowded here, not necessarily with the cast of characters but rather with the balance of ideas. Manuel is an undocumented immigrant constantly trying to appease Lucia as he watches her slipping deeper into madness. The difficult part of this is measuring whether or not the balance between cultural identity and family dynamics and madness itself is equal. For the most part, a more concentrated focus on madness would have helped move this novel along.
How do we treat female mental illness in literature? How do we see deeper into the usual picture of the woman as a feral beast in the wild, her hair unkempt, a dangerous look in her eyes and only doom in the future? Lee gives us enticing pictures of Lucia in confinement, conferring with her inmate co-resident Coco about the status of their confinement:
“…I hate this place,” [Lucy] said.
“‘What’s to hate, baby?’ Coco snapped her powdery pink gum with her bicuspids. ‘You got a bed, your meals, the meds—all-inclusive, baby…”
It’s difficult to reconcile the strengths of Everything Here Is Beautiful, its empathy for the characters (as noted from the epigraph at the start) and willingness to spread out to all sorts of areas, with the frustration that other issues just aren’t explored as they might have been. Sometimes Lee lingers too long in rooms of this house we’d rather just glance into while passing. We read the novel we’re given, not the novel that could have been, but the potential for something better in a smaller format remains to be considered.
Understandably, tighter concentration is probably a blessing that comes with time and practice. It’s barely halfway through this book that we get terms like “Ansognosia”, a symptom of severe mental illness that impairs a person’s ability to perceive or conceive of their impairments. The characters are learning these terms because Lee learned them, but the lessons aren’t applied to action that serves the narrative’s drive. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps Lee succeeds because this is an accurate portrayal of how long it takes for some families to comprehend what’s happening. Blame it on cultural perspectives or just plain denial, but sometimes enlightenment and proper treatment and therapy takes a while to come, if at all.
When Lee focuses on the mental illness, the imagery is quite strong. Such scenarios are always enticing for writers, especially first-time novelists, and usually such narratives indulge way too much in the dramatic potential of bats in the belfry and slippery snakes twisting their way through the bottom of the snake pit. Take these observations from Lucia:
“The serpents invaded my head after Essy was born… they mocked me—stupid girl, made you look!… I would outsmart them, ignore them—but I ended up ignoring Essy’s cries, too.”
Later, we read more chilling accounts of breaking down, and Lee presents them in measured ways that seem to accurately portray the condition rather than exploit them for dramatic purposes:
“And then her face under the spell of the figure’s hot breath, frantic wetness spilling down her cheek… then there is red, red, red. Blood, and the red-streaked too loud figure a blur.”
Everything Here Is Beautiful does manage to tell an “ethnic” story about two women and the characters and locations coming in and out of their lives without it being dependent on the ethnicity or culture. They are not incidentally Chinese, and Manuel is not incidentally Ecuadorian. The story is really about who these women and others in their lives happen to be, not what they are. Perhaps this is an advantage of writing it from the inside, of illustrating a modern story of interracial and cross-cultural relationships without infusing it with sensation and tragedy. This is modern life. This is the world, the essence of what it means to be American, and Lee serves her characters quite well in that respect.
Readers familiar with such sprawling stories of family dynamics that cross cultures, continents, and levels of stability will know from the start that things aren’t going to end happily. We don’t need happiness, however — just some sort of resolution. Everything Here Is Beautiful has a tragic ending that is inevitable yet still unexpected. In the last few pages, a character we knew before she was born proclaims of her identity: ” ‘I’m Chi-meri-dorian.” It’s a sweet way to let the reader know we’re all in this together. This is a blended world that can be difficult without an ability to navigate through the rough spots, and it’s hard to do it alone.
Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful could have been trimmed by one-third. It will not grip onto or breezily entertain the reader. However, there are moments of enlightenment and high-stakes drama that will keep even the most skeptical among us sincerely involved. If anything, it conclusively proves that there will (and should) be more from this ambitious empathic writer in the future.