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 she reaches for warmth and light. As a child, she recognizes that she is different: She 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. Then, at a precarious moment, a beloved friend urges Adina to share her messages with the world. Is there a chance she is not alone?
...astonishing ... Never mind the fault in our stars...this is a book that exults in them ... An ineffable sadness and sense of resignation hang over Beautyland, which refuses to give in to sentimentality or serendipity or the idea of everything working out for a reason. It’s the second novel I’ve reviewed in six months that invokes Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the first being, more obsessively, Ann Patchett’s best-selling Tom Lake. Adina is cast not as Emily, like Patchett’s heroine, but as the narrator, which feels deeply significant. Being an alien here might just be a metaphor for the difficult blessing of feeling enough apart from the thrum of life on Earth to report on its goings-on: to tell a story.
While this seems a proposition that promises the speculative, Bertino prefers to ground the reader in the minutia of the human experience, allowing for a deeper excavation of the strange and wonderful and heart-wrenching realities of what it means to be alive down here on Earth ... Bertino accomplishes what certain acclaimed novels bewilder us with: the ability to encapsulate an entire life within a few hundred pages. Works like A Little Life and Their Eyes Were Watching God come to mind, where we can map a life from adolescence into adulthood and leave with what feels like a birds-eye view of human complication. Is this what it feels to play God? To watch a life untangle from above, to witness the profound in the mundane? But Beautyland’s greater triumph is capturing how time passes ... This is where the sorcery lives, as Adina reveals the eccentricities of human nature, and we watch Adina reluctantly succumb to their emotional weight. When Bertino writes of magic, of science fiction, of the surreal, she is writing of reality.
One of the most memorable characters in recent American literature, and Bertino’s novel is a stunning look at her life ... The premise of Beautyland might seem high-concept and possibly twee at first, but the novel is anything but ... A monumental accomplishment, a shimmering masterpiece from an author with talent to spare. It’s also a novel that offers, but doesn’t insist upon, hope and freedom from isolation.