‟A tender but unflinching portrayal of the bond between two sisters.” —Celeste Ng, New York Times bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere
“There's not a false note to be found, and everywhere there are nuggets to savor. Why did it have to end?” —O Magazine
“A bold debut. . . Lee sensitively relays experiences of immigration and mental illness . . . a distinct literary voice.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Extraordinary . . . If you love anyone at all, this book is going to get you.” —USA Today
A dazzling novel of two sisters and their emotional journey through love, loyalty, and heartbreak
Two Chinese-American sisters—Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the headstrong, unpredictable one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When Lucia starts hearing voices, it is Miranda who must find a way to reach her sister. Lucia impetuously plows ahead, but the bitter constant is that she is, in fact, mentally ill. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until, inevitably, she crashes to earth.
Miranda leaves her own self-contained life in Switzerland to rescue her sister again—but only Lucia can decide whether she wants to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans—but what does it take to break them?
Everything Here Is Beautiful is, at its heart, an immigrant story, and a young woman’s quest to find fulfillment and a life unconstrained by her illness. But it’s also an unforgettable, gut-wrenching story of the sacrifices we make to truly love someone—and when loyalty to one’s self must prevail over all.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Mira T. Lee's work has been published in numerous quarterlies and reviews, including The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, and Triquarterly. She was awarded an Artist's Fellowship by the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2012, and has twice received special mention for the Pushcart Prize. She is a graduate of Stanford University, and currently lives with her husband and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her debut novel.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
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.
It is early morning. Their mother is still asleep. On Mondays and Thursdays she attends night classes at the local college. On Fridays she works at the accounting office until late. “One more year,” she has said, though she has promised this before. She has come a long way since her husband died and she was forced to come alone to America. The mother will soon sit for another actuarial exam. “An excellent profession,” she tells the girls with pride. They know only that it involves a lot of math.
The older one sits at the kitchen table. Opens her tin pan of watercolors, paints with quick, smooth strokes. She will try a still life today, that bowl of peaches, or a vase of Shasta daisies fresh-picked from the garden. She likes the feeling of focus. When the rest of the world falls away.
“Jie! Come look!” her sister calls from outside.
The older one doesn’t look up.
“Come here, I found something!”
She sets down her brush, heads out to the yard. The screen door slams shut behind her.
“Can you see it, Jie? There.”
In the corner, by the fence. Wet grass tickles her feet. The younger one points to something in the low branches of the dogwood tree.
“It’s a spider web, Mei-mei. See how its threads stretch from this branch to that one?”
It is their first summer in New Jersey. Their first house with a yard. Before, they lived in Third Uncle’s basement, in Tennessee.
The younger one’s eyes, wide.
“Don’t worry, Mei. You don’t have to be scared. Spiders won’t hurt you. They catch flies and mosquitoes and all kinds of other insects. See the web? The spider spins it with a silk from its body. It’s sticky. The bug gets caught in those strands and the spider eats it. It sucks out the blood.”
The younger one nods, ponders this information. The older one turns to go back inside.
“ But . . .”
The older one, impatient, though she isn’t sure why. “What, Mei?”
Her sister is pointing to the web again. It shimmers in the sun.
Catches the morning light.
“Look, Jie. See? It’s beautiful.”
Lucia said she was going to marry a one-armed Russian Jew. It came as a shock, this news, as I had met him only once before, briefly, when I was in town for a meeting with a pair of squat but handsome attorneys. His name was Yonah. He owned a health food store in the East Village, down the street from a tattoo parlor, across from City Video, next door to a Polish diner, beneath three floors of apartments that Lucia said he rented out to the yuppies who would soon take over the neighborhood. He had offered me tea, and I took peppermint green, and he scurried around, mashing Swiss chard and kale in a loud, industrial blender, barking orders to his nephews, or maybe they were second or third cousins (I never knew, there were so many), because they were sluggish in their work of unloading organic produce off the delivery trucks. He yelled often. I thought, This Yonah is quite a rough man.
He dusted the wine, mopped the floor, restocked packages of dried figs and goji berries and ginseng snacks on the shelves. He was industrious, I could see, intent on making his fortune as immigrants do. Lucia said he played chess. I’d never known my sister to play chess, though she was always excellent at puzzles as a child. Yonah didn’t seem to me the kind to play chess either, nor to drink sulfite-free organic wine or eat goji berries. But as they say, love is strange. And I wouldn’t begrudge my sister love, nor any stranger, not even one who smoked, and was the kind of man who looked disheveled even fresh after a shower, and would leave his camo briefs lying around on the bathroom floor. I admit I was disturbed, creeped out, by his prosthetic arm, which he wore sometimes, though more often I’d find it sitting by itself in a chair.
Lucia brought him to visit our mother, who was dying. Our mother was tilted back in a green suede recliner, wrapped in cotton blankets, watching the Three Tenors video we’d given her the previous year. She took a long look at this man—his workingman’s shoulders, his dark-stubbled jaw, his wide, flat nose. Her Yoni had the essence of a duck, Lucia said (endearingly), or maybe a platypus, though she’d never seen one up close. My sister liked to discern people’s animal and vegetable essences. In fact, she was usually right.
Our mother winced as her gaze settled upon his left arm, a pale, peachy shade that did not match the rest of him. “What happened to your arm?” she said.
“An accident, when I was twenty-one.” He said it quietly, but without any shame.
“In Soviet Union?”
“In Israel. I moved there when I was teenager.”
“You are divorced,” she said, and I tried to read his thoughts in the fluttering of his blue-gray eyes. I wondered if Lucia had warned him that our mother was like that. I wondered what had been shared, what omitted, when the two of them exchanged stories over chess, over wine. I wished to say to this man: Do you really think you now know our Lucia?
“Thirteen years,” he said. “I have been divorced for thirteen years.” Our mother winced again, though it could’ve been from the pain shooting through her bowels, or her bones, or her chest.
“You are Jewish,” she said. “Jewish are so aggressive. You have children?”
“Two,” he said. “They are with their mother, in Israel.”
At the mention of the other woman, our mother spat. Once, I suppose, she would have wanted to know more, like what did he do, or how old were the children, or what were their names, or did they play musical instruments, and we might have told him that Lucia could recite twenty Chinese poems by the time she was three, or that she was a real talent on the violin, or that she’d suffered a terrible bout of meningitis at age six and nearly died.
“Why are you divorced?” she asked.
“We were married too young,” he said. The skin of his face seemed to hang off his cheekbones. A basset hound, I later said to Lucia.
“This is life,” he said to our mother.
She did not seem quite satisfied with this answer, though she nodded, expelled a heavy sigh. “Take care of my daughter,” she said.
But she was not looking at him. She was looking at me.
She fell asleep. Two weeks later, she was gone.
“Three piles,” said Lucia. “Everything in three piles.”
This was our strategy, tasked as we were with selling the house in New Jersey, as specified by our mother’s will (our childhood home, marred by death, now considered “inauspicious”). So we sorted CorningWare and gas bills and soy sauce and ice trays and Cabbage Patch dolls and garden hoses and yarn and frying pans and Maurice Sendak books and twin bed sheet sets with faded Raggedy Ann and Andy pillowcases. Keep. Trash. Keep. Keep. Salvation Army. Trash. And when we reached Ma’s bedroom, a hallowed hush, as if to acknowledge the finality in this sacred act of disturbance on which we now embarked. The desk where she’d worked, pencil in hand; the throw pillows Lucia sewed one year in home economics class; the portable radio; the clock; her Reader’s Digests; the bed where she’d lain tethered to her morphine drip, eyes closed, silent, body slack at last.
“Fashion show?” whispered Lucia.
“ Well . . .” Why not?
We peered in the closet, the one we’d raided often as impish children. We picked out two vintage cotton sundresses, one with chevron stripes, the other, zigzags. “Twirl!” said Lucia. “You,” I said, and in unison, our skirts puffed out like upside-down tulips.
We burst into tears. Twelve cycles of chemotherapy, three surgeries, three courses of radiation, two clinical trials, three remissions, four recurrences, over nine grueling years—yet the permanence of Ma’s absence still came as a shock.
We worked until late. At two in the morning, we decided to bake. We blasted Abba and Blondie and the Rolling Stones, broke out in song as flour and sugar flew everywhere. “Almonds!” said Lucia. “We need almonds!” Chinese almond cookies were Ma’s favorite, so we set down our spatulas, drove to the twenty-four-hour pharmacy to shop for nuts.
We’ll be roommates someday in an old folks’ 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!
No doubt the grief made us giddy. The late hour. The fatigue. But it was like that, to be with Lucia.
We fell asleep in the family room, the house buttery warm, the waffle-weave of sofa cushions imprinted on our cheeks. And then morning came. And with it came Yonah, roaring up the driveway in a giant rental truck.
They married quickly, in City Hall. Lucia wore a sparkly tank top with pink bicycle pants, silver hoop earrings. She beamed, like a bride. Yonah wore his best khakis, a wrinkled white shirt, a bright red tie. I thought, this is who my sister is marrying: a man the shade of gravy, with a missing limb and a spaghetti-sauce-colored tie. I’d never expected my sister to marry a more conventional man, or a Chinese man, or a highly educated man with a spotless résumé. Lucia had dated a Greek boy in high school, chosen NYU over Cornell, rejected math and sciences for English, all to our mother’s dismay. And while her college dormmates had busied themselves with one incestuous hookup after the next, Lucia met a soft-spoken drummer who lived with four other musicians in Tribeca, ditched her violin for electric bass. She found her wanderlust, too, forgoing the air-conditioned offices and suits our mother and I were both familiar with to teach English in Ecuador, tutor in Brazil, volunteer at an orphanage in Bolivia. In her early twenties, she worked as a travel writer in Latin America for a small start-up firm, before returning to study journalism. She wrote feature articles now for a newspaper in Queens—the next best thing, I suppose, as there she was friendly with halal butchers, Egyptian barbers, Salvadoran cooks and the old Chinese grocers who sold dog penises and exotic mushrooms for six hundred dollars a pound.
Still, I had not imagined this.
Yonah beamed, like a groom. He beamed with the whole of his wide, duck face and his wiry brows and his small, sticking-out ears. “Take picture now!” he barked, and I followed him through the rectangular window of my camera, trying to see what Lucia could see, and yes, he was rugged, fit, masculine. Attractive, one could say. I’d never thought of Lucia marrying before me— after all, she was younger by seven years. My mei-mei.
They had signed prenuptial agreements, at my insistence. I did not think Yonah was marrying for our mother’s money (not a fortune, but far from meager), nor for Lucia’s American citizenship, but I felt my concern was reasonable. “Take more picture!” he said. I did not like how often he spoke in imperatives, though I understood that English was not his native tongue. We had that in common. I did try to like him, I did.
After the two-minute ceremony, he hugged me fiercely, strong as a bear. “Sister!” he said. “Achoti! Hermana! Sestra! Belle soeur!”
“J-yeah!” he said in a remarkably accurate third tone. He laughed from his belly. I liked that about him. Then he scooped up Lucia with his good arm and carried her down seven flights of stairs, out to the plaza where spring blossoms danced and songbirds chirped and a rainbow might have appropriately appeared. He spun her around and around and Lucia shrieked with delight, her arms outstretched, head thrown back, bobbed hair and sharp chin shining in rays of new sun. “My wife, she is beauuuu-ti-ful,” he sang, and Lucia’s eyes shone with such clarity that even my most shrouded worries burned off like a morning fog. They were in love. Our mother, I was sure, could know this safely, from wherever that place is where the dead view the living.
Excerpted from "Everything Here Is Beautiful"
Copyright © 2019 Mira T. Lee.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion:
1. Many of the characters in the novel struggle to find balance between self-fulfillment and obligation to others. What would you have done if you were in Lucia’s situation in the campo? Have you ever had to choose between what you want for yourself and what’s best for someone you love (e.g., a child)?
2. Miranda has been caring for her younger sister since she was a child. But as an adult, what role should she play in her sister’s life? Did you find her actions caring or meddlesome?
3. Is Lucia a modern woman trying to balance family, career, and personal fulfillment or is she “rash, reckless, irresponsible”? To what lengths would you go/have gone to become a mother? Is it ever not okay for a woman to have a child?
4. Manny has to live with the brunt of Lucia’s illness. At one point he reflects: “This was love, or this was duty, he could no longer tell the difference.” What is the difference? When does love turn into duty and when does duty become love? Do you consider Manny loyal, or is he simply passive? Do Manny and Lucia love each other?
5. In the book, Lee writes, “immigrants are the strongest. . . . Everywhere we go, we rebuild.” All the characters in the novel are immigrants, rebuilding their lives in some way. But who is running away from something, and who is running toward something? How do their immigrant experiences differ?
6. How does ethnicity/culture play into this novel? Would you consider this an ethnic novel? Why or why not? Could the same story have been told if the characters were white?
7. Lucia points out that in our society, cancer survivors are viewed much differently from sufferers of mental illness. Do you agree? Do you know someone who has a mental illness? How does stigma affect our views of mental illness?
8. Anosognosia, or “lack of insight,” is a frequent symptom of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and makes these illnesses especially difficult to treat. How do you help someone who doesn’t realize they are ill? How did you feel about Manny putting pills in Lucia’s tea?
9. “He tried so hard to love her—yet how best to love her still eluded him.” The men in the book struggle with how best to love the women in their lives. Should Yonah have let Lucia walk out of their marriage so easily? Should Stefan have supported Miranda’s efforts to help her sister at the expense of her own well-being? Are there right or wrong ways to love someone?
10. Who is most to blame for Lucia’s end? Herself? Yonah? Miranda? Manny? Could someone have done something differently to alter the outcome? What do you think happened to Lucia?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This debut novel beautifully captures the lives snd experience of those touched by serious mental illness. Told from multiple viewpoints-- a woman with a psychotic didorder, her sister, her two husbands and the several communities surrounding them all- the author wonderfully manages to capture the subjective experiences each has in realtion to this illness. This should be required reading for anyone seeking to work in the field!
This was a tragic, sad novel about the closeness of family, the ravages of mental illness, and the way families of those affected deal with this illness. How do we treat, how do we react, how do we try our best to keep family together to provide the best care, the best place, the best life we can have to the people affected by mental disorders. For Lucia Bok, life is full of dreams, of aspirations, of freedom. She is a free spirit wanting to travel, to go forward filling her life with all the zest, with joy, with freedom. She wants to find her comfortable place where everything is beautiful, where she can be all she wants to be. She travels, she reads, she plans, she moves forward, she loves, and yes, she is eccentric. However, those things that make her different start to escalate into psychoses and more and more episodes appear, Lucia learns that she is suffering a mental illness. For Miranda Bok, seeing her sister, a person she loves walk down this road, is devastating. Lucia is given medication to control the episodes but feels that this medication begins to define what she is. She fights to be free, to be her own person, to not be dependent on pills. She wants that freedom so bad to chose her own path and yet, is she capable of that? For Yonah, the Jewish man who comes to love Lucia, seeing her as a confined bird. He loves her, wants the best for her, and yet he will possibly lose her to this disease. Can he possibly give her that freedom she so desires? For Manny, the father of Lucia's child, Essy, he feels helpless. How does he help her? How does he, a poor illegal, understand and provide a safe haven for her. He is frightened by what he sees. He is bound to Lucia because they have a daughter. He loves her for what she can be. He is scared of what she is becoming. This was such an emotional story, told with such insights into the role mental illness can play not only on the person affected by also by the family and friends who surround that person. How much can we curtail a person? How much can we intervene without controlling their lives, a life which is really their own? No one is unscathed by this disease, no one escapes, and no one can ever forget the lasting effects this disease has on family and loved ones. This was a wonderful debut by Mira Lee who allowed the reader to be her characters, to feel their hurt, their love, and their loss.
Everything Here Is Beautiful is a story about family and mental illness. Each family member has to make tough decisions in their lives yet they still manage to stand by each other. Lucia has a “normal” childhood until her 20’s when the serpents start talking to her in her head. Her mental illness takes her life into directions that no one would want to take. What I took away from all her mental issues was how much her sister, Miranda, stood by her. Even when on a different continent Miranda manages to keep in touch and find ways to support Lucia. I loved how Miranda stands up to her husband to help her sister when she needs it the most yet she doesn’t allow Lucia to take advantage. By reading this book I was able to better understand how mental illness can affect a person, a family, and a society. The points of view of Lucia without the serpents and Lucia with the serpents opens my eyes to how helpless a person can be when really they just want a life with love, support, and family. Miranda, Manny, and Yonah also get their turns sharing their stories in alternating chapters. This gives the reader a total look at the life of Lucia and how it appears to those who know her best. Mira T. Lee is amazing. This is a debut book from her and she has already secured a spot on my MUST-READ list. I highly recommend picking up your own copy of Everything Here is Beautiful.
Miranda and Lucia are sisters. Miranda is always looking out for the younger and more impulsive Lucia. Their single mother is from China, but relocates to the United States where she's getting an education and is working hard to give her daughters a good future. Miranda and Lucia are both intelligent and talented and they each study hard. However, when their mother dies the first cracks start to appear in their relationship. Lucia is struggling with demons Miranda doesn't understand. Miranda is trying to keep her sister safe, but it's difficult because of Lucia's erratic behavior. What will happen to the sisters now that they only have each other? Lucia marries an older man because he's her soul mate. She's happy for a while, but then the unpredictable uncontrolled behavior starts coming back and it's much worse this time. Miranda tries to get help for her sister, but Lucia doesn't want to listen to her. The problems between them become much deeper. Eventually Miranda moves to Switzerland to follow her own happiness, but she never stops taking care of Lucia. Lucia leaves her husband to have a child with a man originally from Ecuador and that is when she completely spirals out of control. What will happen to the mentally ill Lucia, will she be able to get the care she needs and have a little bit of stability or will her illness keep making life hard for her? Can Miranda still manage to provide the support her sister has to have or is she in over her head? Everything Here Is Beautiful is a fantastic impressive story. Miranda and Lucia couldn't be more different and I liked the alternating points of view, which makes it possible to get to know them both very well. Miranda is the voice of reason. She is serious, knows what she wants, hardly has any joy and is incredibly driven. Lucia is a free spirit who has a lot of fun at first. Lucia's illness makes her careless and she makes decisions she later regrets. It's difficult for her to be a mother, but she does the best she can. Lucia struggles with her illness and taking medication she doesn't want to take. My heart ached for everything she has to go through. It's tough for both her and her sister who has to watch her destruction without being able to do anything to help her. I admired the open and emphatic way Mira T. Lee describes the mental illness Lucia is dealing with. The result is a beautiful tragic, poignant story that moved me to tears. Mira T. Lee's writing is vibrant, detailed and gorgeous. I liked the way she describes her settings. She makes it easy to picture them and she makes them come to life in a fantastic colorful way. I was fascinated by the cultures she writes about. She does this by giving fabulous details about food, running a household, the way people form friendships and much more. Every single element of her book is exactly right. I loved how she combines a gorgeous story about a complex sibling bond with unexpected twists and turns. Everything Here Is Beautiful is an amazing emotional novel that will stay with me for a long time.
This book clarifies the harsh realities of a people living with mental illness. The main character Lucia suffers from schizoaffective disorder and possible bipolar disease with psychotic features. If she doesn't take her pills, she becomes a very frightening person to live with; harmful both to herself and others. For such people, it is very important to avoid stressful environments and get proper sleep. Above all else, they must take their medication and have periodic appointments with a psych doctor to maintain their condition. This is a genetic disease. People are born with it and cannot help it. Of course, navigating the disease is a nightmare that their family and loved ones endure. This is a story of two sisters of Chinese descent who emigrated to the US with their mother. The younger one, Lucia, was a few months away from being born. The elder sister is Miranda. The mother bravely emigrated in her very pregnant state, along with daughter Miranda, leaving an unhappy marriage behind which ended in her husband's death. With the mother's strength and determination, she obtains an educational degree to attain employment that provides a good home for herself and her daughters. When the sisters are older and making their own way in the world, the mother is battling cancer. During Mom's years fighting cancer, Lucia experiences her first crisis with mental illness. In Miranda's role as older sister, just as she watched over Lucia when Mom was working or going to school, she continues in that role after Mom dies. As the sisters' pathways in life shoot in wildly different directions, Miranda is always a phone call away when Lucia is in mental crisis. Miranda has all the pamphlets about her sister's disease, the medication list, and a fierce determination to look out for Lucia's best interests. Mental illness aside, Lucia is a personality who takes chances, travels broadly, and is well-liked due to her non-judgemental nature. She is a the wild child in contrast with her more strait-laced and "adult-like" sister. Miranda often wonders where Lucia's personality ends and the illness begins. There are also two wonderful characters in the book, Israeli born Yonah and Ecuadorian illegal immigrant Manny. Both are love interests of Lucia's and have their own endearing and admirable qualities. My biggest takeaways from this book were regarding the topics of mental illness and illegal immigration. The author provided much thought-provoking insight to these very serious issues. Thank you to publisher Viking/Dorman who provided an advance reader copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.