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The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears Paperback – February 5, 2008

4.2 out of 5 stars 97 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Barely suppressed despair and black wit infuse this beautifully observed debut from Ethiopian émigré Mengestu. Set over eight months in a gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood in the 1970s, it captures an uptick in Ethiopian grocery store owner Sepha Stephanos's long-deferred hopes, as Judith, a white academic, fixes up the four-story house next to his apartment building, treats him to dinner and lets him steal a kiss. Just as unexpected is Sepha's friendship with Judith's biracial 11-year-old daughter, Naomi (one of the book's most vivid characters), over a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Mengestu adds chiaroscuro with the story of Stephanos's 17-year exile from his family and country following his father's murder by revolutionary soldiers. After long days in the dusty, barely profitable shop, Sepha's two friends, Joseph from Congo and Kenneth from Kenya, joke with Sepha about African dictators and gently mock his romantic aspirations, while the neighborhood's loaded racial politics hang over Sepha and Judith's burgeoning relationship like a sword of Damocles. The novel's dirge-like tone may put off readers looking for the next Kite Runner, but Mengestu's assured prose and haunting set pieces (especially a series of letters from Stephanos's uncle to Jimmy Carter, pleading that he respect "the deep friendship between our two countries") are heart-rending and indelible. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In his run-down store in a gentrifying neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Ethiopian immigrant Stepha Stephanos regularly meets with fellow African immigrants Ken the Kenyan and Joe from the Congo. Their favorite game is matching African nations to coups and dictators, as they consider how their new immigrant expectations measure up to the reality of life in America after 17 years. From his store and nearby apartment, Stephanos makes keen observations of American race and class tensions, seeing similarities--physical and social--to his hometown of Addis Ababa, where his father was killed in the throes of revolution. When Judith, a white woman, and Naomi, her mixed-race daughter, move into the neighborhood, Stephanos finds tentative prospects for friendship beyond his African compatriots. Mengestu, himself an Ethiopian immigrant, engages the reader in a deftly drawn portrait of dreams in the face of harsh realities from the perspective of immigrants. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (February 5, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594482853
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594482854
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (97 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #27,979 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ronald Scheer on June 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The central character and narrator of this melancholy novel, Sepha, is a 30-something Ethiopian immigrant, living in Washington, DC, in a run-down neighborhood that is suddenly showing signs of gentrification. After 17 years in the States, he has long since reached the point of accepting his fate - an endless exile from the country of his birth and the mother and younger brother who survived the revolution that he himself escaped at the age of 19. A shopkeeper now, operating a little market, he lacks the drive that makes model immigrants of others and thus barely makes ends meet - less than barely.

Except for two friends, Ken and Joe, also African immigrants, he leads a lonely and listless life. By contrast, Ken an engineer from Kenya, strives steadily to adapt himself to the American pursuit of material success; Joe, a waiter in a high-class restaurant, is a closet epic poet, obsessed with the political debacle of his own country, Congo. The friendship of these three single men is poignant and often quietly amusing, and they pass the time with ironic reminders of how their lives in America have been like an escape from Dante's hell (the title is a reference to the closing lines of "The Inferno").

Enter a well-off white woman, an academic with a school-age daughter. When she buys and renovates a house in the neighborhood, she sparks a feint romantic interest in Sepha, as well as the resentment of the welfare-check neighbors being evicted as rents suddenly begin to soar. The resulting events make for a wistful account of people traumatized by brutal political upheavals, and washing up in the land of freedom and opportunity, where lives settle into a kind of permanent holding pattern. Beautifully written, with a quiet charm that finds rueful laughter in sadness and loss. Readers may also appreciate Hisham Matar's "In the Country of Men."
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Format: Hardcover
It is rare that I finish a book, only to begin to read it over again the next day. That's what happened when I finished Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears.

Mengestu's writing allowed me to visualize nearly every scene and get to know several of the characters in the novel as if I'd been their friend for years. I could picture Judith's house and Sepha's store. My heart went out to Sepha's Uncle Berhane, who spent years writing letters about his country to congressmen and presidents, and saving copies of his correspondence.

His writing is not forced nor flowery nor full of words an average reader needs to look up in a dictionary. His writing is conversational and accessible, yet he tells a powerful story with those words.
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Format: Hardcover
See also my review of Mengestu's second novel, How to Read the Air.

This is a wonderful debut novel, expertly crafted and beautifully written. It is the story of Stepha Stephanos, an immigrant from Ethiopia now a small-time shopkeeper in Washington, D.C., as he comes to terms with his past and the death of his father in Africa, his life as an immigrant and what he has become, living and working in the run down Logan Circle neighborhood, and the love that might have been but never will be. Together with his two African friends, one from Kenya and one from the Congo, we look through the eyes of Africans in America and how they try to make sense of their chaotic homeland. I am not African, but I work in Washington and found many observations about this city that are dead on. Mengestu has written a book with a little something for everyone, about living the small life in a great city (though it's set in Washington, there is not one politician or lawyer in the book), about young people trying to make lives of their own and make sense of family history, about finding love in the most unexpected place and knowing that it will never work out. Oh yes, and about being an immigrant.
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Format: Hardcover
I admit right off to having problems staying engaged in this story. This novel is written in a beautiful style, but I just had a hard time relating to the narrator. I felt I really never got to know him. I recently read Cutting for Stone, and I loved that story, and immediately was happy about the Ethiopian connection in this book. But the relationships and the story just fell short for me.

Sepha is an Ethiopian immigrant who is given the gift of escaping a bloody regime that murdered his father in Addis Ababa. He now resides in a small apartment in a run down part of Washington DC. His dream of becoming a successful shop keeper (and by default, part of a community) is thwarted by his own indifference and homesickness. He dwells on the past and lives a quiet life, until he meets his new neighbor Judith, and her daughter, Naomi.

Sepha has friends and acquaintances who care for him. But his true connection comes with the intellectual and mysterious Judith and her precocious 11 year old daughter, Naomi. He is temporarily brought to life by these women. His connections to his African past, his friends Kenneth and Joseph seem to depress him and unwittingly taunt him.

This novel is not a happy one, in my opinion,. It is filled with disappointment and grief. Much has been lost by so many in this book, especially the main character of course. Perhaps the connection to Dante is that he and his neighbors on Logan Circle (as in circle of hell, of course) are trapped in their own kind of hell, like Dante's, and the book seems to end appropriately. this isn't a long novel, and the writing is superb, but it was a painful, sad read.
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