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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino

In Beautyland, Bertino offers a poignant, funny, strange story full of extraterrestrial observations of humans and their behavior that ring true. This was odd and lovely.


Adina is born on Earth just as Voyager 1 launches into space. Her mother is a street-smart, scrabbling single parent, while Adina is an unusually perceptive child--with knowledge of another planet, a vivid nighttime school she attends in her mind, and faraway extraterrestrial relatives who have asked for her observations about humans and life on earth--which she provides by sending them her reflections through an otherworldly fax machine.

Adina feels like an outsider in the world looking in, and when she attempts to share her extraterrestrial status with a few trusted people over the course of the book, reactions range from concern about Adina's mental health to benignly agreeable "we all feel like outcasts" replies.

She maintains a best friend from childhood who talks Adina into publishing a book of her brief yet powerful outsider's reflections on human life, its wonders, its confusing contradictions, and complicated emotional states. The book becomes a polarizing work, with many responding positively to Adina's perspective and others fearful, irritated, or bent on revealing Adina as a liar.

Meanwhile the reader is privy to Adina's many missives to her extraterrestrial family--and their often-terse replies to her. She feels caught between existences, and the book pulls to a powerful but understated end in which this push and pull is resolved.

I found myself torn throughout reading this; was Adina a character struggling with mental illness and imagining her superiors' replies, or was she truly an alien in a human "shell"? I believed in the latter, but establishing the definitive truth of the situation didn't ultimately matter deeply to me: Adina's eyes offered a beautiful, odd, lovely peek at human behavior, and her observations were just wonderful.

Beautyland is strange, poignant, and funny. I adore a book in which an outsider peers objectively at the absurdities of human life as in Bertino's story. In that respect, this book reminded me of Matt Haig's The Humans, another book I loved.

The title comes from the name of a cosmetics store that Adina and her mother frequent in Adina's youth, as her mom seeks budget beauty magic and searches for her signature scent. Later in the book Adina visits a revamped Beautyland as an adult, and the large store offering "beauty" is both familiar and foreign to her.

I listened to Beautyland as an audiobook, narrated by Andi Arndt, courtesy of Libro.fm and Dreamscape Media.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Marie-Helene Bertino is also the author of Parakeet.

If you like this book, you might also be interested in the books on my Greedy Reading List Six Great Stories about Robots, Humans and Alien Life, and AI.


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