[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0735221960″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/51oQohmJeWL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”221″]The Strongest Bond
We Have in This Life
A Feature Review of
Everything Here Is Beautiful:
Mira T. Lee
Hardback: Pamela Dorman Books, 2018
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Reviewed by Janna Lynas
I remember hearing the term, “Schizophrenia” as a high school student but didn’t understand what it meant. A few years later, as a freshmen in college, I’d sit in a Psychology 101 college class reading about mental illnesses and watching videos of the person afflicted with the illness, as well as their families. I silently prayed that wouldn’t be me or anyone I knew. It seemed like torture.
Twenty years ago, no one really wanted to talk about mental illness. The diagnosed, if they were diagnosed, received drug cocktails and families were lonely. There was no one waving a banner to talk about mental illness in public or otherwise. It was quiet, except for those who were left to deal with the loss, the medications, the relapses and the questions.
It is here in the novel by Mira T. Lee, Everything Here Is Beautiful, we find the fictional story of two sisters dealing with mental illness. Having immigrated to America from China with their newly widowed mother, Lucia, the younger sister, vibrant and adventurous, begins to hear voices, and later recalls the “First time it happened. ‘It,’ the zing.” (168) It was Lucia’s freshmen year of college and by the age of twenty-six, she was diagnosed with Severe Lifelong Mental Illness. “Later I would be told I had a twenty percent chance of maintaining a full-time job, a twenty-five percent chance of living independently, a forty percent chance of attempting suicide, a ten percent chance of succeeding.” (171-172)
Lucia takes her medication and assumes her life. After travel and working abroad, she returns to find her mother sick with cancer. She pours herself into learning everything she can from her mother, favorite recipes and stories from long ago. She wants to know about the father she never met, her mother pregnant with Lucia while still in China, her father dying just days before they were to leave for America. But her mother doesn’t want to talk about Lucia’s “Ba.” It is better to not speak of these things.
Lucia’s sister, Miranda, older and responsible, promises her dying mother she will take care of Lucia. And she does. She keeps record of what medications Lucia takes, what she can’t take because of the side effects and all the pamphlets given at the hospital.
Now living in New York City, Lucia announces she is marrying an older man named Yonah, a Jewish Russian amputee, who loves and dotes on her. Miranda’s life takes her to Switzerland with a man she meets and the two sister’s lives are spread far apart. The sisters talk and one day, trying to convince Miranda to come for a visit, Yonah declares in his thick accent, “Everything Here Is Beautiful,” (20). But their lives would soon take a sharp turn with which Miranda was familiar.
Through a series of drastic decisions, Lucia leaves Yonah, meets Manny, an illegal alien from Ecuador and is found to be pregnant with his child. The unmarried couple enjoy their newborn, but the stress of motherhood and the demands of an infant take a toll on Lucia and Manny is warned by the pediatrician that Lucia should not be left alone with their daughter.
Lucia ends up on a mental ward in a local hospital, her sister Miranda immediately flies back from Switzerland. Miranda chooses loyalty, to honor the promise to her mother so many years ago. She chooses to run to her sister, to protect her, to love her. But it’s a tormenting decision to walk into a hospital mental ward and face doctors and nurses who pretend to know your own flesh and blood better than you do. Before the elevator could take her to the sixth floor, she fled and fed her soul in the city she had left behind.
Eventually Lucia, is released after a visit by both Yonah, whom she is still married to and Manny, the father of her child. She returns to live with her daughter, Esperanza and Manny, who is wary and watchful, but Lucia stays medicated and normalized. All the while, Lucia is very much aware of what is going on, that everyone watches her and “subtly” checks to see that she is taking her medication.
This is the point where I lose interest in this story. There are so many moving parts, so many diverse characters, crisscrossing the globe, it is difficult to follow and the narrative unbelievable. It’s hard to invest. But maybe that is also the point. Mental illness doesn’t make sense. It is difficult to imagine the confusion of a mental illness – to be aware that your thoughts aren’t normal or even realistic. It is difficult to imagine the confusion of the family, trying to love and provide the best care they can while trying to live their lives the best they can.
Finally, the story comes full circle, and Esperanza, now a young woman, raised without a mother, is attending college at NYU. Again, Miranda is there, welcoming her, and Esperanza asks about her mother. Sometimes we are careful in the details, sparing the other person of desperate and mournful memories they have no connection with, memories that only lead to confusion. And so Miranda tells Esperanza that Lucia was, “…even as a child – vibrant, vivacious, a free spirit who did as she liked… and how she and her father met…how they lived north of the city in one of the little towns on the Hudson, until they moved to Ecuador.” (349) This is a beautiful story to tell and Esperanza is satisfied.
A family bond is often the strongest bond we have in this life. We grow up together, play together and take care of one another, through good times and bad. We move through life and death together. This life, the one of the mentally ill and their family, is messy and traumatic, and at times it’s one agonizing decision after another, but we’re family and so we do the messy, the traumatic, the agonizing, and we do our best to live ourselves.
While Everything Here Is Beautiful is not what I was anticipating, the story of sacrifice for the ones we love and our own letting go is a powerful one.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com