The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is about an Ethiopian immigrant, Sepha Stephanos, who owns a small grocery store. Stuck between two identities — that of his Ethiopian roots, and that of his American immigrant status — he connects almost immediately with Naomi, a half-black 11-year-old, who moves with her mother, Judith McMasterson, to Logan Circle, the small, run-down neighborhood where Stephanos lives. This is rather remarkable, considering Judith is the first white person to live there: “Before Judith, these were the only reasons white people had ever come into the neighborhood: to deliver official notices, investigate crimes and check up on the children of negligent parents,” but demonstrates the creeping effects of “urban renewal” or “gentrification.”
Because of the dreadful events of his past and the melancholy status of his present, Stephanos is frozen in time, unable to make any progressive steps. He often plays a game with his other Ethiopian friends, Congo Joe and Ken the Kenyan, in which they name the many coups of Africa and when they reigned, which demonstrates an unrewarding, nonsensical nostalgia for the place they once called home. Joe clarifies, “when the coup stops…so will the game” which, from what we see, is a long time coming. Stephanos’ efforts to define himself are somewhat lackluster: although he has lived in America for 17 years, he has shown little growth or signs of assimilation besides his move from “Little Ethiopia,” an apartment building in Silver Spring where Ethiopians maintain their lifestyle and culture, and the founding of his less-than-profitable business. Even in his relationship with Judith, he refuses to take action., besides a kiss that is less of a kiss and more of a “pressing,” as he describes it. Although there are many rather substantial plot developments—from the eviction notice of the store to the escalation of violence against Judith—Stephanos stays resistant to change and growth throughout.
The story is divided into chapters alternating between the past and present. This organization of the novel provides another venue for which the topic of loss of identity are brought into the story.