Gabino Iglesias Reviews Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino – Locus Online


Beautyland, Marie-Helene Bertino (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 978-0-37410-928-8, $28.00, 336pp, hc) January 2024. Cover by Abby Kagan.

Marie-Helene Bertino’s Beautyland is one of the most unique novels I’ve read in a while. A wonderful mix of science fiction and literary fiction, this story is full of humor but also packs a treasure trove of witty observations about the human condition and a sharp dissection of life in small-town America through a few decades of innovation and changes.

Adina Giorno was born in Philadelphia to a single mother just as Voyager 1 was being launched into space. Adina is unremarkable, and the path ahead of her is just as unexceptional: school, a crappy job, maybe a husband and a kid or two. However, Adina is special; she is on Earth, but not from Earth. When she goes to sleep at night, she wakes up in school in another place and she’s constantly sending information, updates, and observations back to her planet through a fax machine. While keeping her big secret quiet, Adina experiences the world through her unique lens while reporting back and trying to make sense of not only Earthlings but also herself. School, growing up, boys, popularity, the news, a vast array of emotions, vacations, working in a small diner, death, traveling the country, New York City; Adina lives the life of a normal human while also not being human. In the process, she learns a lot, so when a friend encourages her to share what’s she’s learned, Adina is tempted. Could she find others like her? Are the things she feels make her unique not that unique at all?

Beautyland is, simply put, a lot of fun. The be­ginning has an ’80s campy movie aesthetic that’s very appealing, and reading about Adina in school soon after offers a scathing look at the cruelty and pressures most kids go through early in the lives. However, the narrative soon turns into a collection of brilliant observations that make Adina a truly memorable character whose short reports cut to the core of many of the things most humans have felt at some point – or feel regularly:

When you’re alone, you are in the right place to watch sadness approach like storm clouds over an open field. You can sit in a chair and get ready for it. As it moves through you, you can reach out your hands and feel every edge. When it passes and you can drink coffee again, you even miss it because it has been loyal to you like a boyfriend.

This is a strange, beautiful book about an alien girl looking at the world and its residents as she becomes a woman. However, it’s also a narrative that deals with what it means to be human, and that makes it memorable. From Adina’s bizarre relationship with her mother and her sense of otherness to the process of making and then losing friends and dreaming of going to bigger, better places, Beautyland offers a lot of relatable things, all presented in a way that fits the narrative without losing their universal appeal.

From great lines and heartfelt moments to unexpected hilarity and the kind of propulsive writing that makes it hard to put a book down, Beautyland is the kind of science fiction novel that transcends the genre in ways that will please science fiction fans as well as those who rarely dip their toes into the genre. Don’t miss it.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

This review and more like it in the April 2024 issue of Locus.

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