Beautyland: A Novel

This love letter to being human (336 pages) was published in January of 2024 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book takes you to 1970s New Jersey. Melissa read Beautyland and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

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A Novel

Marie-Helene Bertino

Nineteen seventy-seven was a big year for space exploration. That’s the year that NASA launched Voyager 1, a space probe sent into interstellar space to study the outer planets of the solar system.

In this book, at the exact moment that Voyager 1 was launched, a baby girl named Adina was born prematurely to a single mother in Philadelphia. The baby, Adina’s mom thinks, looks ‘other than human. Plant or marine life, maybe. An orchid or otter. A shrimp.’ It turns out, Adina is something else. She’s an alien — sent to live undercover as a human to report on the human race.

As she grows up in the 1980s and ’90s, Adina diligently takes notes on humans, dutifully transmitting her messages to alien relatives via a fax machine her Earth mom found in the trash. And the aliens write back! The extraterrestrial conversations between this odd, adorable girl and her far-away family are silly and sweet, melancholic, wistful. She notices, and her observations record the mundane and brilliant things humans do. All of our contradictions and beautiful hearts, meanness and possibilities. And, sometimes quite overtly, Adina’s loneliness.

Humans are inherently social, she faxes. Even so-called hermits who live in the wilderness are connected to other human beings by their minds. Early humans lived in groups, creating huts to gather in. The incoming fax reads: WE HAVE OTHERS REPORTING ON THAT. STICK TO YOUR OWN LIFE. The fax is at once a rebuke, a relief, and, most important, a revelation, because it introduces Adina to the most beautiful word she’s ever heard: others. Where are these others? she faxes. Reasoning it is more likely to receive an answer if she attaches her curiosity to practicality, she adds, It would be useful at this stage to compare notes, combine efforts. NO NEED TO COMBINE.

The story follows Adina through her childhood and into young adulthood. She weathers mean girl bullying and a single mom navigating her own troubled waters. She moves to New York City and experiences heartbreak and deep friendship. She accidentally finds fame and suffers grief. By living her life and sending those faxes, she becomes all too familiar with the human condition.

Is Adina truly a spy for an alien race? Or, like so many of us, does she simply feel like an alien, isolated, confused, and other? You’ll have to read this love letter to messy humans (and aliens) everywhere to decide for ourself.

Carl Sagan is a polarizing astronomer who wears natty turtleneck-blazer combos and has been denied Harvard tenure for being too ‘Hollywood.’ He says human civilization is so far behind that if extraterrestrials were to make contact, they’d have to speak slowly. Is that why you sent a fax machine? Is that why you sent me here instead of somewhere like New York City? He says Voyager 1 launched a cosmic message in a bottle into the universe. He is looking for us! This statement does not convey the wealth of joy this brings. She adds: He believes in me. Even the squeaking tumbler sounds disinterested when the reply arrives: YES WE KNOW ABOUT HIM AND HIS TURTLENECKS. — Marie-Helene Bertino

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