Beautyland: A Novel

  • By Marie-Helene Bertino
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 336 pp.

Tender, observational wit carries the reader happily along on this extraterrestrial journey.

Beautyland: A Novel

So much of Marie-Helene Bertino’s fiction deals with alienation that perhaps it was only a matter of time before she wrote about an alien. Even though her latest, Beautyland, is still firmly rooted in the working-class Philadelphia neighborhoods of both 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas and Parakeet, here, Bertino casts her wry and empathetic eye on the wider universe.

On September 5, 1977, in an instance of “interstellar crisscross applesauce,” Carl Sagan’s brainchild, Voyager 1, launches into the cosmos just as Adina Giorno plummets to earth via young, unwed Térèse’s birth canal, a journey that nearly kills them both. “The baby is too small,” writes Bertino. “Her skin and eyes appear lightly coated in egg…she appears other than human. Plant or marine life, maybe. An orchid or otter. A shrimp.”

As a child, Adina is acutely sensitive to the noises people make when they eat and preternaturally attuned to the signals from the betta fish at Martin’s Aquarium, Auto World’s air-fueled Flying Man (that bends, twists, and cheers silently for her each day), and the lobsters scrabbling in their tank at the Seafood Shanty. The rubber-banded crustaceans make her cry, even as she “tries to ignore their ululations of sorrow.”

When 4-year-old Adina takes a hard fall from her concrete porch, two things happen: her father — whose frustrated shove propelled her down the steps — leaves, and “Adina reboots…Adina is activated.” She begins receiving nightly tutelage from her overseers, who are elements of an interconnected network of consciousness. The tutors demonstrate how she will communicate with them using the fax machine her mother rescued from the neighbor’s garbage. She is then given her mission:

“The name of the planet Adina is from does not have an English equivalent. Roughly, it sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice. She has been sent to Earth to take notes on human beings. This will help the people of Planet Cricket Rice, glimmering on their troubled planet centuries away.”

It’s not always clear what information they’ll find helpful. Adina is drawn to Sagan and his search for Planet Cricket Rice-like beings, which seems to her both apropos and a cause for joy. “He believes in me,” she concludes one fax, only to get a cosmic brush-off in the response:


One of the (many) delights here is how the author captures the world through a child’s eyes. We forget how confusing the unexplained and contradictory world of adults is to kids; they truly are little aliens thrust into this realm, needing to puzzle so much out on their own. Adina becomes a trenchant observer of culture and the lives around her, carrying a tiny notebook and pencil as she attempts to decode the unspoken rules of human life, often taking things — with a child’s literal-mindedness — at face value without grasping the subtext.

The fraught space of mother-daughter relationships is a wellspring of material in Bertino’s fiction. Here, we fully empathize with Térèse, who, in that moment in time before Adina, was a beautiful girl who loved dancing and singing, but who is now barely holding it together with boiled chicken, House of Bargains haggling, and a daughter who needs both glasses and speech therapy. Still, we desperately want her to unclench just enough to enclose her girl in one full, warm embrace.

The nearby sundries store, Beautyland, carries necessities on the ground floor and luxuries upstairs. It’s at the latter that Térèse and Adina get scolded by a salesman for enjoying the perfume testers a little too much — sucking the joy out of a rare moment of silliness between them. “Sometimes people don’t like it when other people seem happy,” Térèse tells her weeping daughter before driving them home in stony silence.

In fourth grade, Adina meets her BFF, Toni, and the best of Toni’s brothers, Dominic, who help make life bearable. She experiences all the normal misery — longing for a crappy boy, humiliation at the hands of the popular girls — while remaining keenly aware of her other existence and her separateness from it. In this way, Adina gets a double dose of alienation (as if the regular dose isn’t debilitating enough).

Eventually, Adina follows Dominic and Toni to New York City, to a little job, a little dog — Butternut — and a little apartment above halal meat carts, beside the elevated 7 train, and below the jets from JFK and LaGuardia. Unlike chewing noises, this cacophony doesn’t bother her; life in the city retains its sense of enchantment.

Beautyland is divided into five sections (each named for a stage in the life cycle of a star) that follow Adina through her pedestrian days. All of them are filled with episodic chunks that carry the reader along on a wave of yearning — for what, much like Adina, we’re not sure. But we’re pulling for her, for Térèse, for Toni and Dominic, for all of them to find themselves and each other — to grope around and make the connections that we humans so often and so easily miss.

Admirers of Bertino’s work often remark on the wondrousness of her writing from the sentence level up. Her descriptions render the world in new and unexpected ways and yet remain wholly organic to the story. A reader trying to pick a favorite passage ends up highlighting everything. And while, in Parakeet, her observational wit was mordant and desert-dry, it is tender and open here without being naïve or falling into treacle.

I read the author’s three novels in quick succession and plan to circle back to her award-winning debut story collection, Safe as Houses. After that, like her other fans, I’ll eagerly await whatever Bertino writes next.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.

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