Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Book Review: "Everything Here is Beautiful" by Mira T. Lee

I'm not crying, you're crying.

"But it was impossible to know the truth of another's interior life. Wasn't it?"

Miranda has always looked after her younger sister, Lucia. When Miranda and her mother first emigrated to America from China, her mother was pregnant with Lucia, and Miranda considered it her responsibility to protect the baby, even before it was born. And so it went throughout their childhood, as their mother strove to provide them a better life. Miranda was the sensible, sturdy one; Lucia was creative, dreamy, emotional.

After their mother died, Miranda knows her sister is still her responsibility. When her sister starts behaving erratically, becoming paranoid, hearing voices, Miranda steps in, ensures she gets the treatment and the medicines she needs to keep her life on course. But since Lucia is an adult, Miranda doesn't have the control, can't make her do what is best, can't keep her safe if she doesn't want to be.

Impetuous as ever, Lucia meets and marries Yonah, an older Israeli man who runs a health food store in New York. He is devoted to Lucia and has no idea of the tumult she keeps at bay. When she becomes ill again, it is Miranda who comes to the rescue, but once again, she must stand by, powerless, as Yonah heeds Lucia's wishes and releases her from the hospital. But when Lucia decides she wants something different, and leaves Yonah and their life behind, all Miranda can do is wait until everything falls apart again.

How much can one person be expected to sacrifice for a loved one? How much abuse can you tolerate being hurled at you by someone you are trying to take care of, even when you know they don't mean the things they say? Miranda's life is lived in stops and starts as she waits for the next crisis to emerge.

Lucia then meets Manny, a young Ecuadorian immigrant, and has a baby with him. But after her illness rears its head again, and she pushes Miranda away, she realizes that perhaps moving to Ecuador will make everything better. For a while it does, but Lucia can never escape the fact that she lives with mental illness, no matter how she tries to fight those who want what is best for her. Meanwhile, Miranda must decide whether she should continue to be her sister's keeper when needed, constantly disrupting her own life.

Told in shifting points of view, Everything Here is Beautiful is a poignant, powerful, beautifully written account of living with mental illness and the toll it takes on everyone around the individual. It has an almost epic feel at times, traveling through continents and through time, but at its core, this is a simple, moving story about the relationship between two sisters, the push-and-pull of familial obligations.

At times I thought the pacing felt a little slow, but Mira T. Lee tells her story so skillfully, and makes you care about characters even as they aren't entirely sympathetic. It is hard to believe that this is Lee's debut novel, because everything feels true and flows smoothly.

There are many books, both fiction and nonfiction, which chronicle the effects of mental illness and the sacrifices required of caregivers and loved ones. Everything Here is Beautiful is an important addition to that canon, but it never feels heavy-handed or preachy. And darned if you won't wipe a tear or two away at the same time!

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