The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

by Dinaw Mengestu


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Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.

Watch a QuickTime interview with Dinaw Mengestu about this book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594482854
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/05/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 126,983
Product dimensions: 7.98(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.62(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and was named a “20 under 40” writer to watch by The New Yorker. Mengestu’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Granta, and other publications. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

Reading Group Guide

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her bi-racial daughter.



Dinaw Mengestu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1978. In 1980, he and his family came to the United States. A graduate of Georgetown University and Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction, he lives in New York City.


  • Mengestu opens the novel with Sepha and his friends, Joseph and Kenneth, and the game that they play matching African coups with dictators and dates. The three come from different parts of Africa, and have left different places and people to be in the US. Why do they play this game? How does it affect their relationships with each other? With the country they now call home? With the continent they left behind? Though they are close friends with a long history, why do you think that Joseph reacts the way that he does when Sepha appears at the restaurant? What about Kenneth’s attempts to help Sepha figure out a way to keep from losing the store? How do their differences help or hinder the narrative?
  • In recalling his uncle’s questioning why he had “chosen to open a corner store in a poor black neighborhood,” Sepha says that he had “never said it was because all I wanted...was to read quietly, and alone, for as much of the day as possible.” Books play a huge role in Sepha’s life as well as in the action of the Mengestu’s story. Did you feel that a particular literary reference gave you a glimpse into Sepha’s character that was unexpected or surprising? Which one and why? Or if not, why not?
  • Gentrification, class struggle, and ideas of democracy reverberate as prevailing themes in the novel. How does Mengestu weave these themes into the Sepha’s interactions with Judith and Naomi? The race/class based polarization of Logan Circle? Judith’s career?
  • As we learn in the novel, its title comes from a passage in Dante’s Inferno that Joseph believes to be “the most perfect lines of poetry ever written.” Why do you think Mengestu chose the title The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears? What parallels do you see between Sepha’s story and Dante’s?
  • Speaking of books, reading The Brothers Karamazov together becomes a way for Naomi and Sepha to relate to each other, regardless of their age and implied class differences. Why do you think he highlighted his favorite passage (below) for Naomi, the one he memorized and “read out loud to the shelves and empty aisles,” writing “Remember This” in the margins of his copy of the book?

    People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometimes be the means of saving us.

    Do you think it is an attempt on Sepha’s part to tell her some of his own story through another’s words? Why or why not?

  • When he goes shopping for Christmas presents, Sepha strolls optimistically throughout the city, finally feeling he has “the beginnings of a life” in America. This optimism is shattered when he finds that Judith and Naomi have left the city for the holidays. Why do you think Sepha’s optimism depends on having Judith and Naomi close? Are they the source of his optimistic feeling? Why or why not? What about his thoughts that end the novel? Why, despite everything, does the store “look more perfect than ever”? How do you think his relationships with Judith and Naomi might have changed his outlook? How might they have changed his relationship to America?
  • How does death affect the Birdswell family? How does Herbert’s death affect them? Roger’s death? The deaths of their childhood? Why do they continue to be haunted by the ghosts of their past? In what ways does each of these deaths change them?
  • Although Sepha has been in the U.S. for seventeen years, he still seems stuck between America and Ethiopia. Though he mentions going back to visit his mother and brother—even at one point thinking of abandoning everything in America to return—he asks himself towards the end of the novel, “How long did it take for me to understand that I was never going to return?” In an interview, Mengestu theorizes that Sepha will never return to Ethiopia despite his yearnings because “nostalgia and memory are all he has.” Do you agree? Why do you think he has stayed? Why has he never gone back?
  • Letters appear frequently in the novel: His uncle Berhane’s letters to various politicians, Sepha’s letter to Judith, Naomi’s letter to him. How does Mengestu use letters to further our understanding of those characters in the novel who write and receive them? Though we never meet him except through his letters, what do Berhane’s letters reveal that might not have been portrayed through a conversation or letter correspondence between Sepha and his uncle? How does Berhane contrast with the other African immigrants in the novel, namely Kenneth and Joseph? Why do you think that Sepha never wrote back to Naomi?
  • What is the significance of Mengestu’s choice to set the story in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.? Do you feel that the city is a character itself?
  • Were you surprised to find that the brick thrown through Judith’s windshield and at Sepha’s store, as well as the fire that destroyed her house, were the acts of one man as opposed to a group of angry citizens ignited by the evictions? How did you feel about the violence that was directed at Judith and Naomi? About her reaction? What do you think will happen to Logan Circle? To Sepha’s shop? To Sepha himself?
  • Customer Reviews

    The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    To keep it short... a very good writer who has sold himself short. Next time I hope he delves more into the psyche of his characters and doesn't leave them so 2 dimensional. Plus, the ending was very lacking and unsatisfying - as if he thought - I guess I'll end the book today. I hope to see more from this author in the future to see how he grows with his writing. All in all I enjoyed the book despite its' flaws.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    In this debut novel, Dinaw Mengestu gives an inside look into the lives of three African immigrants living in Washington, DC, who are not exactly living out the American dream that they had hoped for. Main character Sepha Stephanos is a listless shopkeeper struggling to keep his business afloat in a poor neighbourhood. His regular customers are prostitutes who walk the neighbourhood streets and a nosy old widow who speaks to herself. His two friends - the only ones he has - are Joseph and Kenneth. Both African immigrants themselves, Joseph is a waiter at a posh restaurant who finishes off the customers' leftover wine, and Kenneth is an overworked accountant whose boss bullies him into working even on Christmas Day. With nothing to do and little they can afford, the three gather each week at Sepha's shop and quiz one another on the details of Africa's many coups. When a white female lecturer, Judith, and her bi-racial daughter, Naomi, move into his neighbourhood, Sepha's life takes a sudden turn and is filled with hope and excitement once again. He even begins to harbour hope that businsess at his shop will pick up. The novel is no page-turner as it progresses slowly, revealing itself in layers. Impatient readers might get exasperated by the lack of action and conflict. But the book poignantly captures the sadness and loss that fill the lives of immigrants who find that they can never quite fit in.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    A book that needed to be written! For one so young, Dinaw Mengestu writes with incredible insight touching many aspects of American society that are usually ignored. I look forward to reading his future works, of which I hope there will be several.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Wonderful debut novel told from the unusual point of view of an Ethiopian immigrant. The story engaged my interest from the first page and held it to the end of the narrative. Interesting subtle use of flashbacks in the story, moving the plot along seamlessly. I hope Dinaw Mengestu will write, or has written, more novels. I'll definitely read them.
    anonymousMK More than 1 year ago
    The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a rather thin work of fiction that reads like a long short story. This is typical of creative writing MFA grad school style. Mengestu's MFA is from Columbia, by the way. There is too much dialogue. The characters are sketchily drawn and the plot is barely there. Nevertheless, it is an intelligent, thoughtful work of fiction. The protagonist, an Ethiopian immigrant shopkeeper named Sepha Stepahnos, comes across as a mouthpiece of the author rather than a flesh and blood character. Part of this problem stems from the story being told in the first person. Sepha is simply too knowing, too observant, too fond of spouting literary references, to be convincing. A strong, third person narrative voice would have helped this novel tremendously. As it is, it is still a worthwhile book. I look forward to other work by Mengestu.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I couldn't put this book down. It was absolutely beautifully written - the language was divine. Highly recommended
    chrystal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Book about an immigrant from Africa, makes few friends, is stiff and estranged from his "uncle" who also lives in the city. He reflects on tragic events in revolutionary Africa, has little contact with his family still there. Palpatable loneliness, he places much emotional hope in a girl and her mother who move into his blighted neighborhood and renovate a brownstone. The relationship doesn't work as he hopes, I don't think the woman has any idea of his feelings, and eventually they move away and he is left alone, with his failing store. The ending is somewhat hopeful; after meandering through the city trying to connect with the few people he knows, he goes back to the store to try again (or that is how I saw it) A quick read with insights to the immigrant experience in America . I think he experiences crushing disappointment about his life in America and what the country is really like, it isn't a fix to lifes problems. I liked this book, but I liked the inheritance of loss much better, this book wasn't as vivid.
    goldiebear on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I really thought I was going to enjoy this book. I am usually very interested in immigrant experience type stuff and anything to do with Washington, DC. I made it about 3/4 of the way through the book before I gave up. I got to that point where you are just reading the pages, but not really reading the pages, you know? It started off really well, but got really choppy as things went along. The character development I thought was pretty poor, which is disappointing because the characters had real potential I thought. I got bored. I didn't care about the characters. The main character I thought was a bit of a wimp. His friends had potential, but I felt like they never went anywhere. I thought this book was a bit disappointing. I did however enjoy his depiction of Washington, DC. I thought it was true and accurate for the most part.
    debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Sepha Stephanos left Ethiopia after his father¿s death at the hands of Ethiopian revolutionaries for a new life in America. Sepha opens a store and manages to pass days and then years selling small grocery items to the poor residents of the neighborhood. But his life feels meaningless and inconsequential; he never bonds with his neighbors or his new country. The only connections he makes for many years are with two fellow African immigrants. His happiest hours are spent talking with them about the disappointments their new country has given them. Finally Sepha befriends a little girl and her mother, new residents of the neighborhood. Perhaps Sepha will use the inspiration these two bring to reenergize his hopes and dreams.
    denton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    The book is about three friends, all African immigrants to the USA, one does well as an engineer, one becomes a waiter in DC, and the protagonist (Sepha), opens a deli in a run-down part of DC. They amuse themselves attaching African coup dates to generals and such when they get together to share drunken stories. The neighborhood where Sepha has his deli is changing, as in gentrifying, embodied by the arrival of a white woman and her bi-racial daughter who buy and restore an old mansion. Meanwhile, the deli is failing, since Sepha seems to lack that 'drive' that we tend to associate with immigrants. Still, he befriends (but never quite sleeps with) the woman, and he especially is friendly with her young daughter. As the pace of gentrification picks up, which entails evictions of the neighborhood's long-standing African American residents, Stepha is not sure where he fits in. He's Black but he's not African American. Yet as a business owner his relationship with the neighborhood is uneasy. When things get ugly, he can't exactly choose sides. He wants to remain the observer, yet he knows he should choose sides. But things are never that easy, are they?Good novel on what it means to emigrate to America, what it means to try and fit in, and what it means to be unable to fit into any of the standard cubbyholes we assign people.
    getupkid10 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    An amazing book written by a young Ethiopian American. The story follows Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian who fled the red terror after he watched his father dragged out of his home in Addis. Twenty years since his arrival, Sepha, a grocery store owner in a neighborhood in DC where prostitutes are often his best customers, is still trying to find the "American Dream". Soon, however, the neighborhood is gentrified, and he befriends a white woman and her daughter. This connection has Sepha longing for friendship, love and family. This first novel is a great, often funny, often sad book about finding your place in a world you have never felt at home in.
    theageofsilt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This first-person narrative tells of Sepha Stephanos who has been sent from the political turmoil of Ethiopia by his mother to find sanctuary in the U.S. He is a reluctant immigrant - unwilling, emotionally, to embrace a new start. He play acts the immigrant's dream of getting an education and starting a new business. I found the book a fresh view of immigration. Many immigrants would rather have just stayed home and the energy and optimism we associate with those who have come to pursue the American dream is absent. The depressive and bleak tone of the novel eventually lifts and we are left with a sense that Stephanos will learn to become a part of his new home.
    brsquilt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    About Ethiopian man in Washington D.C. who owns a small grocery store - his struggles, his friends, his neighbors. Nicely written, gentle, enjoyable read.
    whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This was a fast read, but I have to say that, in the end, I felt it was overrated. There's no doubt that it's an ambitous work, but I think it attempted too much. The characters, when really considered, alternate between being unbelievable and being simply unsympathetic. Those character flaws, combined with a wondering plot and a non-existent ending (for me, at least), made it a work that I can't recommend.
    eejjennings on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Despite not really liking the main characters who were understandably depressed and discouraged with their lot in the US, this book has much to be liked. The author's use of quotes from Danta and deToqueville added meaning and offered some hope for these immigrants that they might one day find success and happiness.
    goddesspt2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Ethiopian immigrant, Sepha Stephanos, who fled his country 17 years ago, is the owner of a barely profitable store in a neighborhood of Washington, DC. The reader is also introduced to his friends, Kenneth from Kenya and Joseph from the Congo. Other main characters, are Judith, a white woman, and her mixed race daughter, Naomi. Judith, who is renovating a 4-story home, represents the first wave of impending gentrification. The book¿s title comes from a line in Dante¿s Inferno, that Joseph believes to be ¿the most perfect lines of poetry ever written.¿Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears, Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars ¿ Dante¿s InfernoOne of things I liked about this book was it took place in the Logan Circle neighborhood of DC (with a side trip to Silver Spring, MD). I grew up and spent over 30 years in the area. While I found the passages between Naomi and Sepha moving as they bonded through their shared reading of The Brothers Karamazov, I felt that the attraction between Sepha and Naomi¿s mother, Judith, to be forced and lacking chemistry. The story came alive for me as we find out the circumstances surrounding Sepha¿s life and subsequent flight from Ethiopia. I enjoyed the interaction between Sepha and his friends as they meet in their favorite bar and play their game ¿name the African coups and dictators.¿ When the action briefly moves to Silver Spring, Mengestu helps us understand how newly arrived immigrants live.The book was honored with as the New York Times Notable Book of the Year and the Guardian First Book Award.
    richardderus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    How wonderful it is to find a first novel that feels so accomplished and tells such an engrossing story. I can't imagine that real, enjoyable talent is becoming rarer in a world that contains such eloquent proofs of its health.Mengestu tells the story of three friends, African immigrants all, who meet in Washington DC, for so long the home territory of nativist sentiment in our republic of exclusion. I don't think a recap of the plot will help anyone decide whether or not to buy the book, because its outlines are simple: Men seeking material success in the motherland of same are thwarted and, through effort and good fortune, succeed at things they weren't looking to succeed at...temporarily.A fire plays a major role in completing the story, and since I am currently seeing a fireman, that caught my eye. It's not, to my surprise, used as a pat plot device, but imbued with a real sense of the inevitability of sadness, loss, and change in the entwined lives of three lovely characters. Naomi, to name but one, is a heartbreakingly well observed actor in the piece despite her tender years, and Judith her mother is such a deftly drawn, conflicted, real person that I was tempted to look her up in the phone book; as for Sepha, he can come stay with me until things get better. That's the kind of connection Mengestu's characters call forth in me, and I hope in you too.Bravo, Dinaw Mengestu. Thanks. Write...well, publish...more soon, please. Recommended for all readers of fiction.
    thornton37814 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This is the story of an Ethiopian who immigrated to Washington, D.C. The author shows Sepha's struggle to "find himself." The book's title came from a line from Dante's Inferno, which is quoted in the book. Sepha is one of those characters with whom most of us will not completely identify although we can certainly appreciate his love for literature and the struggles he faces that are often somewhat of his own making, partially (although not completely) because of cultural differences. This is a very good "first novel" although it's not a masterpiece.
    miyurose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    ¿The beautiful things that heaven bears¿ is a line from a passage in Dante¿s Inferno, in which Dante is emerging from hell. According to one of the characters in the book, ¿no one can understand that line like an African because that is what we lived through. Hell every day with only glimpses of heaven in between.¿ The passage is definitely a metaphor for Sepha¿s story, whose existence seems to be just one long, endless trudge through life. I enjoy books like this that give me a glimpse of life in a different culture than my own, but I think that in some ways this book is a little too subtle. For example, when the ¿series of racial incidents disturbs the community¿, I wouldn¿t have known they were racial incidents if the back of the book hadn¿t said so. They could just as easily been class-based as race-based. Also, the pacing of the story was difficult for me to follow. The story jumps back and forth in time, and once in a while I would lose track of where I was in the timeline. I think I would have enjoyed learning more about the culture than just about Sepha. Overall, this was a well-written novel, but it left me wanting more ¿ or maybe, just something different.
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