Marie-Helene Bertino’s Beautyland – Chicago Review of Books


There is a certain kind of fiction that, in its pitch-perfect encapsulation of reality, functions to help us mourn the distance between the world we want and the world as it is. These are the stories and novels of Marie-Helene Bertino, from her 2012 story collection Safe as Houses and her debut novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas to the stunner Parakeet and her latest: Beautyland.

Beautyland begins with a traumatic birth. As our protagonist, Adina, enters the world, her mother nearly dies. Mother and daughter are presented as binary stars, but Adina is not from Earth; she is an extraterrestrial, sent by her superiors to take notes on what it means to be a human being.

“Activated” at age four by an experience of domestic violence that leads to the expulsion of her father, Adina begins sending transmissions to her home planet via a fax machine her mother rescues from the trash. Her observations are specific to the time and place she’s been dropped: Northeast Philadelphia in the 80s and 90s with a Sicilian-American single mother who “cannot afford to be smart with money.”

“Human beings don’t like when other humans seem happy,” she faxes after an incident at Beautyland, the local necessities and beauty supply store. Her mother, in a rare light mood, has brought her to the sacred perfume floor to sample the scents, but their fun is cut short by a condescending clerk who tells them they’re wasting perfume. Adina cries, her mother is frustrated, and their moment of happiness becomes an early experience of shame.

Adina begins to think of Carl Sagan as one of her human fathers, because he’s looking for her — he believes in her. The Voyager 1 launches into space the moment she is born, on it one of Sagan’s Golden Records filled with human greetings, music, and sounds, along with optimism and hope. Sagan aims to “tell the human story,” and so does Adina.

Adina’s notes, at first filled with child wonder, grow more jaded as she encounters all her world has to offer: rejection, disappointment, heartbreak, loneliness. Sometimes her superiors respond. Occasionally they ask her questions, and she tries to help them understand but they are too literal. “If when I explain human behavior you insist on logic,” she faxes, “we won’t get far.”

Adina’s extraterrestrial status is not a metaphor for her difference; it is a fact of the book, just as the narrator’s dead grandmother in Parakeet really does appear as a talking bird who shits on her wedding dress, just as the narrator of Bertino’s classic short story “North Of” really does bring Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving.

And yet, aspects of Adina’s alienation are all too familiar to us humans. Take her young adolescent questioning of what her female body will come to mean: “If she believed the T-shirts sold on the boardwalk, a woman was a ball or chain, someone stupid you’re with, someone to lie to so a man can work out or drink beer. If she believed fathers on television shows, women were a constant pain, wanting red roses or a nice dinner out. If she learned how to be a girl from songs, it was worse. If she learned from other girls, worse still.”

Longtime Bertino fans may find that Beautyland is darker in tone than the earlier works. Bertino has never shied away from depicting the harsh realities of life in America — systemic inequities based on race, gender, and class, random acts of violence, the way the constant churn of capitalism leaves no time for grief — but she usually counters these with enough humor and whimsy to tip the scales toward joy. Beautyland begins in that vein, but it’s frontloaded; as Adina grows up, her outlook dims, and she lingers longer in depression and despair. These, Bertino seems to say, no one on Earth can escape, not even an extraterrestrial.

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Here, Bertino plays with time in a whole new way. Where before she has excelled at compression — 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas takes place over the course of one day and Parakeet within one week — Beautyland gives us Bertino’s most sweeping storytelling yet. We witness Adina learn and change and accumulate losses over decades; of course she has more to grieve at forty than she did at four (though Bertino has a gift for rendering the pure-hearted sorrows of the lonely child). 

When they are adults, Adina’s friend Dominic will use the word ‘queer’ to describe himself, his sister Toni, and Adina. Toni — Adina’s closest friend — and Dominic are both gay. “How is Adina queer?” Toni asks. But the word is perhaps the best human word to describe Adina, who can never quite calibrate her expectations of what life on Earth could or should be like to her experience of what it is, and whose coming out as an extraterrestrial is never fully understood or accepted by the people she loves. Her own mother’s response is first to question where she went wrong in raising Adina and then to advise her to keep the news to herself.

But Adina keeps trying to communicate. Her project — to write about what it means to be human — is also Bertino’s project, and in Beautyland she has done so masterfully. Beautyland is Earth, and Earth is Beautyland — the source of so much awe, the site of so much pain. In her depiction of alienation, Bertino has given us a novel about our very real, very human longing for connection with one another.

By Marie-Helene Bertino
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published January 16, 2024

Shayne Terry

Shayne Terry’s work has appeared in American Chordata, Catapult, CRAFT, Electric Literature, TriQuarterly, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Born and raised in northern Illinois, she lives in Brooklyn. Find her at


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