Spotlight on “Beautyland” by Marie-Helene Bertino

by LitStack Editor

Beautyland – A wise, tender novel about a woman who doesn’t feel at home on Earth.

Beautyland and author Marie-Helene Bertino

About Beautyland

At the moment when Voyager 1 is launched into space carrying its famous golden record, a baby of unusual perception is born to a single mother in Philadelphia. Adina Giorno is tiny and jaundiced, but reaches for warmth and light. As a child, she recognizes that she is different; she also possesses knowledge of a faraway planet. The arrival of a fax machine enables her to contact her extraterrestrial relatives, beings who have sent her to report on the oddities of earthlings.

For years, as she moves through the world and makes a life for herself among humans, she dispatches transmissions on the terrors and surprising joys of their existence. But at a precarious moment, a beloved friend urges Adina to share her messages with the world. Is there a chance she is not alone?

A blazing novel of startling originality about the fragility and resilience of life in our universe, Marie-Helene Bertino’s Beautyland is a remarkable evocation of feeling in exile at home and introduces a gentle, unforgettable alien for our times.

Editorial Reviews for Beautyland

Claudia Ballard, WME. (Jan.)

The triumphant latest from Bertino (Parakeet) offers a wryly comic critique of social conventions from the perspective of a woman who also happens to be an alien from another planet. 

Adina, born in 1977 Philadelphia to an indefatigable and supportive “Earth mother,” is “activated” at age four by her extraterrestrial “superiors.” Her mission is ­to “report on the human experience” to her bosses on Planet Cricket Rice. They teach her to read and write in English before she starts school, and in one of her early communiques, she expresses a precocious insight into adult psychology after a store clerk is rude to her mother (“Human beings don’t like when other humans seem happy”). 

In high school, she’s ostracized from the popular clique, gets made fun of for having dark skin (her Earth family is Sicilian), and obsessively researches astronomer Carl Sagan (“Yes we know about him and his turtlenecks,” her superiors write back, unimpressed). In college, where she desperately misses her best friend Toni, she faxes while stoned (“Plants are the earth’s hair. Genius and ingenious mean the same thing!” To which her superiors reply, “These observations are unsurprising and mediocre. Are you ill?”). 

In the final section, Adina drops out of college and moves to New York City to be closer to Toni, who works in publishing, and whose support leads Adina to share her writing with a human audience. Bertino nimbly portrays her protagonist’s alienhood as both metaphor and reality. The results are divine.

Kirkus Reviews

A coming-of-age story in which the main character is, literally, out of this world.

In Northeast Philadelphia, in the Earth year 1977, Adina Giorno is born to a woman destined to be a single mother. The baby is too small, and her mother, observing her under the hospital phototherapy lamp, thinks she looks “other than human. Plant or marine life, maybe. An orchid or otter. A shrimp.” One reason for this might be the lamp’s unearthly blue-green light, or the fact that the baby is early and the mother traumatized by her difficult birth. Another might be the fact that Adina is actually otherworldly, an alien life form from a planet 300,000 light-years away, sent to infiltrate human society and “take notes.” 

This Adina does assiduously all throughout her childhood and adolescence in 1980s and ’90s Philadelphia, where she lives with her Earth mother in a poor, ethnically Italian neighborhood that is slowly sinking into the toxic ground on which it was built. The notes themselves—winsome observations on the nature of the creatures that surround her (animal, vegetable, and, most mysteriously, human)—are sent via a fax machine Adina’s Earth mother scavenges from the trash and sets up in her bedroom. Adina’s extraterrestrial superiors return encouragement via interstellar fax and offer occasional instruction through telepathic dreams that take place in their best approximation of what an Earth classroom might look like. 

As Adina grows and her circle of influence widens to include her tough but loving mother, her iconoclastic friend Toni and Toni’s film-buff brother Dominic, enemies, loves, false friends, and the other characters of a well-rounded Earth existence, Adina becomes more and more aware of how different she feels from her Earthling friends, even as her life follows the pattern of their joys and sorrows. 

A compelling, touching story that weds Bertino’s masterful eye for the poignant detail of the everyday with her equally virtuosic flair as a teller of the tallest kinds of tales—so tall, in this case, they are interplanetary.

A heartbreaking book that staggers with both truth and beauty.

Praise for Beautyland

The triumphant latest from [Marie-Helene] Bertino offers a wryly comic critique of social conventions from the perspective of a woman who also happens to be an alien from another planet . . . Bertino nimbly portrays her protagonist’s alienhood as both metaphor and reality. The results are divine.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“In Beautyland, Marie-Helene Bertino’s Adina (maybe an alien, maybe a troubled human, always both) takes the tired old world and describes it so perfectly that we see it as if for the first time. Sparkling and alive, funny and magnificently true, this book woke me up. It made me weep with appreciation for the hard, strange, small-but-huge lives we lead. It made me fall back in love with this universe.”—Ramona Ausubel, author of The Last Animal

Beautyland is both an otherworldly and completely human look into one girl’s life, written in concise, lyrical prose. It is richly allusive, funny, and hypersmart. Marie-Helene Bertino has knocked it out of the park with this one. I loved it.”—Brandon Hobson, National Book Award finalist and author of The Removed

“This book is endlessly surprising on the sentence level, but also as a story, and also in its tenderness. We might all need the unexpected love and perspective of a child alien at this point in human history. Beautyland is beautiful and hilarious and transcendent. It honestly feels like a message from another planet. Marie-Helene Bertino is an otherworldly talent.”—Tommy Orange, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of There, There

“Marie-Helene Bertino’s delicious, uncanny vision throughout Beautyland makes everything feel brand-new—a roller coaster is ‘a series of problems on a steel track,’ chardonnay smells like ‘pee and flowers,’ death is ‘merely a diminishment of one perspective.’ Bertino’s strangering prose delights with baffle and surprise, and the chapters are so propulsive one doesn’t even fully notice the way she’s subtly deconstructing the world….”—Kaveh Akbar, author of Martyr!

About Marie-Helene Bertino, Author of Beautyland

Beautyland author Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of Parakeet, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, and the story collection Safe as Houses. She was the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Fellow in Cork, Ireland. Her work has received the O. Henry Prize, the Pushcart Prize, the Iowa Short Fiction Award, the Mississippi Review Story Prize, and fellowships from MacDowell, Sewanee, and New York City’s Center for Fiction. Her writing has twice been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts.

You can find and follow Marie-Helene Bertino on her website, on Instagram, and Twitter.

Titles by Marie-Helene Bertino

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