book review: Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee


Pamela Dorman Books, January 16, 2018


Everything Here is Beautiful is a quiet and thoughtful book about mental illness and the toll it takes on the relationship between two Chinese-American sisters. Miranda is the older, responsible one, who’s spent her life looking after her younger sister, Lucia, impetuous and free-spirited. Throughout her adult life, Lucia grapples with an undefined mental illness (doctors are unable to determine if it’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or something in between), and Miranda struggles with the guilt of never being able to help her sister quite enough.

What’s particularly striking about this book is how Mira T. Lee balances an array of perspectives, which serves to challenge the reader’s perception on a single issue. We flit back and forth between Miranda, Lucia, Manuel (Lucia’s young Ecuadorian lover), and Yonah (Lucia’s husband), and we stay in each of their heads long enough that they genuinely feel like real people, each with their own strengths and biases and shortcomings. We hear from Lucia both when she’s lucid and when she’s wrestling with what she refers to as the ‘serpents’ in her mind, which provides us with a hard-hitting and candid exploration of how ‘real’ Lucia’s paranoia and delusions feel to her. Lee also highlights the sad truth that there are often no easy answers when it comes to addressing severe mental illness – at different times in her life Lucia tries medication and hospitalization, and while I’m happy to say that this is not a narrative that maligns medication in any way (it’s ultimately a rather pro-meds message), the reality of medicating doesn’t provide Lucia with a simple solution, which is often the case. It’s an important narrative that I think will resonate with anyone who’s grappled with mental illness at some point, and I’m hoping that books like this and Chemistry will succeed in starting some conversations about the stigma surrounding mental health in our society.

But back to the narrative – I do have a few complaints. (1) It was too long by about a hundred pages. The plot stalled at about a third of the way through, and though the pace eventually rectified itself, there was still a lot of filler. I was initially sure I was going to breeze through this book, but for a while there in the middle picking it up was kind of a drag. (2) I’m not a fan of first and third person being used together in novels. I’ve seen it done well (e.g., Burial Rites by Hannah Kent) but for the most part it doesn’t work for me. Here it felt arbitrary and stylistic. The effect Lee created with the multiple POVs could have been easily achieved with exclusively either first or third person. (3) The timeline was occasionally unclear – there would be big time jumps between two chapters with hardly any indication.

But all that said, I mostly really loved this. Everything Here is Beautiful is a powerful and moving novel. Mira T. Lee comes out of the gate strong with this debut, taking on issues of mental health, immigration, familial duty, motherhood, and national and cultural identity. I’d highly recommend this to fans of Celeste Ng, Min Jin Lee, and/or Weike Wang.

Thank you to First to Read and Mira T. Lee for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Everything Here is Beautiful will be published on January 16, 2018.