The BookBrowse Review

Published January 24, 2024

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Blog:
    Imagining Life on Mars: A Reading List
  • Wordplay:
    T E H N Clothes
A Novel
by Marie-Helene Bertino

Hardcover (16 Jan 2024), 336 pages.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN-13: 9780374109288

A wise, tender novel about a woman who doesn't feel at home on Earth, by the acclaimed author of Parakeet.

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.



In the beginning there is Adina and her Earth mother. Adina (in utero), listening to the advancing yeses of her mother's heart and her mother in the labor room, vitals plunging. Binary stars. Adina, swaying in zero gravity. Térèse, fastened to the operating table. The monitor above the bed reports on their connected hearts: beating heart, heart, beating heart, beating. Térèse's blood pressure plummets as Adina advances through the birth canal; she has almost reached Earth. At this moment, Voyager 1 spacecraft launches in Florida, containing a phonograph record of sounds intended to explain human life to intelligent extraterrestrials.

It is September 1977 and Americans are obsessed with Star Wars, a civil war movie set in space. Bounding to the stage after hearing her name, a Price Is Right contestant loses her tube top and reveals herself to a shocked Burbank audience. In the labor room of Northeast Philadelphia Regional, no one notices Térèse's plummeting blood pressure. Something lighter and more conscious detaches and slips beneath the body on the table, underneath the floor and sediment, landing in a corridor of waist-deep water. Behind her, unembodied darkness. Far in front, over an expanse of churning waves, a certain, cherishing light. Térèse wants the light more than she wants health, more than she wants this baby's father to become a shape that can hold a family. She forces one leg through the water then the other, trying to paddle herself like a vessel.

* * *

The contents of Voyager 1's record were chosen by Carl Sagan, a polarizing astronomer who wears natty turtleneck-blazer combos and has been denied Harvard tenure for being too Hollywood. Carl and his team have assembled over a hundred images depicting what they decided were typical Earth scenes: a woman holding groceries, an insect on a leaf. The sounds include Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," the sorrowful cries of humpback whales, and recordings of the brain waves of Carl's third wife. Footsteps, heartbeats, and laughter. Destinationless, Voyager 1 will travel 1.6 light-years: farther than any human-made object. At a press conference Carl says that launching this bottle into the cosmic ocean is intended to tell "the human story."

* * *

The astronomers hoped to include the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," but Columbia Records asked for too much money. It's hard to make human beings believe in things.

Also not included is 1977's top hit "Barracuda," though every story hummed that year over the upholstered dividers of United Skates of America or yelled between cars pinned atop Auto World pistons or delivered through the eldritch mists of Beautyland's perfume section is told over the twinned guitars of the two-sister band from Chicago. It plays on the radio in the nurses' station at Northeast Regional. A speck of Panasonic rustle between songs.

* * *

The current is too strong; Térèse makes no progress. The light remains distant. She cries out. The fright of a huge suck pulls Adina through to big white. Térèse regains consciousness under unfriendly lamps, baby on her naked chest. The baby is too small. Her skin and eyes appear lightly coated in egg. She is placed under a phototherapy lamp. Lit blue-green by the mothering light, yearning toward its heat, she appears other than human. Plant or marine life, maybe. An orchid or otter. A shrimp.

* * *

Adina: noble

Giorno: day

* * *

Térèse watches through the nursery window as her new daughter fails to reach the light.

Adina will hear this story several times in her life and in her imagination Térèse will wear a strapless red corset and capelet like Ann Wilson on the cover of Little Queen, only Sicilian, and with roller skates, humid late-season wind blowing through the doors. Her hair will glisten darkly with Moroccan oil, too coarse to relent to the popular feathering style.

In reality, Térèse has been arranged into a ...

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino. Copyright © 2024 by Marie-Helene Bertino. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Beautyland portrays the inner world of a sensitive girl named Adina, who comes of age with the conviction that she is an alien sent to Earth to report back on human behavior.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino tells the story of a precocious girl named Adina. Living with her low-income single mother in Philadelphia, Adina faces all the trials of childhood and coming of age while feeling deeply disconnected from those around her. The story, though, feels secondary to getting to know Adina. Throughout, the narration is an unflinching close third person that never feels inconsistent or forced.

Our reading pleasure is fraught with pangs of sympathy for the extraordinarily sensitive girl. People's mouth sounds aggravate her so much that popcorn eaters in theatres ruin movies for her. "When it was time to decide the official food of movie-watching, human beings did not go for fig Newtons or caramel, foods that are silent, but popcorn, the loudest sound on Earth," she observes. Again and again, her rarity and genius are dismissed because she just can't fit in. Asked to cover a lacrosse match for her college paper, Adina doesn't report the final score but includes commentary like, "The late season sunlight makes the grass glow like milk," much to her editor's disappointment.

Adina explains her sense of isolation by saying she is an alien sent to Earth to report on human behavior. She gets a free fax machine and uses it to send and receive faxes from her "superiors" on Planet Cricket Rice. She sends uncanny observations like, "In the future almost everything on a body will prove itself to be wisdom teeth." I was initially confused, not knowing if the superiors were real or where her faxes went. As the book progresses, that becomes less and less important. What matters is that sense of literal alienation that Adina feels, compounded by her conviction that she watches humans but is not one of them. She tells her superiors that she wants to meet others who were sent to earth to take notes, and the narration stays so close to her inner world that we don't know what people think of her or whether she has some kind of mental illness. We're forced to take her as she sees herself.

If readers can embrace that premise as a given, it's easy to empathize with Adina. Her alienation makes her all the more relatable: in her, we see our own moments of rejection and failure. I frequently wished I could comfort her, protect her, or just make her laugh. I also felt a special fondness for the characters with whom she does bond. I always wanted a big brother, and I was touched by how Adina's friend's older brother looks out for her.

Beautyland intensely impacted the way I think about my relationships with other people. Adina made me think about what others, especially strangers, might be going through, and how to reach people who define themselves by their isolation. I wondered if people create distances between each other to avoid pain and thought about how it never works. As Adina suffered a loss, I teared up and then bawled through the rest of the book. The narrator's voice stays so intimately aligned with the protagonist that her grief couldn't help but be mine, and it broke me in fractures long ago formed by my own losses and rejections. Though Adina is ostensibly not human, she takes on all of our big, hard feelings and complexities. And it's beautiful and refreshing and funny and heartbreaking, all at once.

Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin

Alexandra Jacobs, The New York Times
[A] remarkable funny-sad novel ... Astonishing ... This is the kind of humor that made Seinfeld millions, and Bertino does pathos, too.

Dan Sheehan, Literary Hub
Wry, melancholy, utterly bewitching ... Deftly blurring the line between reality and metaphor to create a work of exquisite beauty, joyfully off-kilter humor, and aching sorrow, Beautyland, and Adina's lonesome journey, will fill and then shatter your heart.

Hilary Leichter, BOMB
[Beautyland] is interested in the charged terrain of uncertainty and the tender ideas that emerge when we poke at the unknown ... From this gorgeous data of existence, Bertino taps into a particular nostalgic awe familiar to a generation of kids raised on Carl Sagan and inflatable lunchroom planetariums ... [Adina] continues to hope for something beyond humanity, something better, and what could be more human than that?

Ian Mond, Locus Magazine
A singular novel with a singular protagonist who has a singular view of the world ... Wonderfully quirky, funny, bittersweet... A very funny and empathetic book that unravels the contradictions, complexities, and weirdness of this thing we call life.

Michael Welch, Chicago Review of Books
A sharp exploration of human fragility and loneliness ... [and] an unforgettable sci-fi story.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A heartbreaking book that staggers with both truth and beauty.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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.

Annie Bostrom, Booklist (starred review)
Expertly imagination-bending ... With so much humor and heart, Bertino balances fantasy and hyperrealism, metaphor and fact ... It's like fiction was invented for Adina and her tale, which unspools so assuredly readers might mistake it for their own.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Gloria M
Because I am an avid reader (on average I finish 2.5 books every week) and I am addicted to print books, I refrain from purchasing every book I consume-instead I borrow them from the library or friends or family.   Only if I find that I absolutely love the book AND would want to read it again AND I want my children and their children to read it do I end up buying it (I do not have the budget to buy or the space to store every book I read).  Yes, I have an e-reader and yes, I occasionally use it and totally comprehend the cost savings, but print books soothe my soul!

So "Beautyland" by Marie-Helen Bertino satisfies all my requirements and it is on my list to acquire (thanks to the library for having it readily available and to BookBrowse for leading me to this title). It is just amazing.   It is the story of Adina Giorno who believes she was sent to Earth by her people (aliens) to report, via fax machine, on humans.

Is this true? Is she really an extraterrestrial or does she have some serious psychological issues?  You can decide for yourself.  I chose to hold both possibilities within my mind as I turned the pages - think, Schrodinger's cat.  This saga takes you from Adina's birth and through the many decades of her life.  You learn of her intelligence and empathy for the humans she is "studying" and you ache at her loneliness.  You grow to understand her mother, at first an unsympathetic character, but as she says to her daughter, "It's like when you wrote that all we ever ate for dinner was chicken.  Little girl, I made pasta every night. What other facts are you misremembering about your childhood?"

We watch her lifelong friendship with her best friend Toni and her second best friend Toni's brother Dominic.  There are many others in her life, most notably her beloved dog Butternut, her romantic relationship with Miguel and her nightly "visits" with her alien mentor, Solomon.

It is rare that a book makes me weep, this one does.  It is even more unusual for a work of fiction to make me cry AND laugh, but somehow Bertino does this with her engaging writing style.  I cannot wait to add it to my collection so I can refer back to it.  I will be thinking about this one for a long, long, long time. 

Print Article Publisher's View  

Glassworks by Philip Glass

Black and white photo of Philip Glass in 1993In Marie-Helene Bertino's Beautyland, the protagonist, Adina, has a visceral reaction to a song that plays at the end of a movie she sees at the planetarium. "At the end of the film, they pan through the universe. A song begins. Made out of choppy, repetitive phrases, sturdy in the middle and fragile around the edges, so soothing she can't believe a human has made it," Bertino writes. Adina asks who the artist is and a classmate "gives her one of the most important details of her life: 'It's Philip Glass.'"

Born in 1937, Glass is an American composer known for his solo work, film scores, operas, and collaborations. He's well known for bridging classical music with popular music, thanks in part to his collaborations with a wide array of other artists, including Ravi Shankar, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie. He's considered one of the pioneers of minimalism, a genre identified by the "choppy, repetitive phrases" Adina hears.

Adina especially loves his album Glassworks, which was released in 1982. Glass made the record attempting to appeal to both contemporary classical and pop music fans. Classical audiences interpreted this goal as pandering to the masses. To their point, it remains Glass's bestselling album. It helped make him such a household name that he was lampooned on the Comedy Central cartoon South Park. In the episode, the animated version of Glass plays one note over and over again. However, Glassworks has also maintained street cred through the artists it's influenced along the way. Contemporary ambient and electronic artists like Aphex Twin, Portishead, and Brian Eno cite the record as a major influence.

Many listeners still discount Glassworks because it's so different from Glass's other work. The New York Times referred to it as a "footnote in Glass's catalog." It's not wholly unfair to point out the stylistic differences. Glass was only the second composer signed to the major CBS Records label—the first being Aaron Copland—and his critics accused him of selling out. It didn't help that Glassworks was vastly different from Einstein on the Beach, a popular opera Glass released the previous year. Unlike his operas and film scores (which include the Oscar-nominated score for The Hours), Glassworks was never meant to tell a story. While there was a special mix made for the Walkman, Glass explains in his memoir Music that it "was no gimmick but a truly different mix made with headphones plugged directly into the mixing board."

While reading the different arguments for and against Glassworks is fascinating, there is no substitute for listening to the album itself. I can't imagine anyone hearing the first song, "Opening," and not being moved by the fragility of the solo piano refrains. The song is Chopin-tinged and rainy, hypnotic in its repetitions. I'm always surprised when it turns into the French horn-and-synth-heavy splendor of "Floe." The string arrangements on "Islands" have an apprehensive quality which gradually evolves into wonder as new layers of sound are added. The two final tracks, "Facades" and "Closing," are simply stunning works for strings and piano, nostalgic through and through. I never feel like Glassworks is a cheap appeal to middlebrow tastes. Rather, it's music that anyone might like, with or without a Walkman.

Filed under Music and the Arts

By Erin Lyndal Martin

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