“It’s amazing to know,” says a character in “Beautyland,” the latest novel from Marie-Helene Bertino. “That you’re never going to be totally okay ever again.”
The words are spoken to Adina Giorno, the novelist’s protagonist, after a catastrophic loss, but she doesn’t need to hear them. She’s lived her whole life in a state of unease; she’s a perpetual outsider who — for good reason — has never felt in step with the rest of humanity. She’s also one of the most memorable characters in recent American literature, and Bertino’s novel is a stunning look at her life.
“Beautyland” opens with Adina’s birth in northeast Philadelphia in September 1977, the same day NASA launched the Voyager 1 probe into space. The timing is fitting — “If like a newspaper Voyager intends to bring the news, this baby is meant to collect it, though no one knows that yet, including her,” Bertino writes.
Adina appears human, but is, in fact, an alien. She’s actually from Planet Cricket Rice, light-years away, and has been sent here to gather information about the people of Earth, as Voyager 1 seeks to learn about space: “It is an interstellar crisscross apple sauce.”
She is 4 years old when she is “activated” by her superiors on Cricket Rice, who appear to her nightly, while she sleeps, in a “Shimmering Area” that looks like an Earth classroom. She is tasked with sending updates about life on Earth via a fax machine that her Earth mother, Térèse, has rescued from a trash can. “I am an Adina,” her first dispatch reads. “Yesterday I saw bunnies on the grass.” (“DESCRIBE BUNNIES,” her superiors write back.)
Adina grows up in Philadelphia with her mother — her father takes off when she’s a child — and learns the feeling of disappointment early. In one scene, Adina and Térèse pay a visit to the titular establishment, “a dash-to-in-a-pinch supply store,” where an employee admonishes them for sampling perfume. “Sometimes people don’t like when other people seem happy,” Térèse explains to her crying daughter.
Adina is enrolled in Catholic school, befriends a girl named Toni, and develops a near-obsessive fascination with Carl Sagan. Her adolescence is as typical as an alien’s can be; she and Térèse have a relationship that is contentious at times. (“Daughter asks for a dog and mother says no. Daughter asks well how about pierced ears then IF SHE IS EXPECTED TO LIVE IN THIS DOGLESS HELL.”)
She is accepted by, then rejected by, a group of popular girls after she declines to perform a sex act on a boy, laughing when he exposes himself to her: “How could she have known what a girl’s laughter does to a boy?” She goes to high school, develops an interest in acting, and finds herself unexpectedly affected by the series finale of the sitcom “Cheers.” To her superiors, “she describes the pressure sitting on her breastplate: loneliness, nostalgia, nausea, something else she can’t articulate that makes her eyes hurt.” (They respond, accurately but unhelpfully, “ENDINGS ARE HARD.”)
Then comes a job waiting tables at a diner; then comes college, and with both, feelings of increasing alienation and dissatisfaction. “She is nineteen Earth years old with the life of a middle-aged divorcée. Is this all there is?” Bertino writes, echoing Peggy Lee. She keeps in touch with her interstellar superiors, who are frequently incredulous at the vagaries of humanity: “If when I explain human behavior you insist on logic, we won’t get far,” she tells them. She moves to New York, eventually reunites with Toni, and eventually experiences a huge success and a huge loss, both of which leave her at loose ends.
The premise of “Beautyland” might seem high-concept and possibly twee at first, but the novel is anything but. As odd as it might seem to say about a novel in which an alien reports on the human race from dingy apartments in Philly and New York, this is an incredibly grounded book; Bertino writes about Adina’s coming of age in the 1980s and ‘90s with a gimlet eye for detail and a beyond-impressive sensitivity.
Adina proves to be a fascinating character, a winningly self-conscious oddball who longs for a home where she’s never been. Bertino details her anguish at being perpetually out-of-place beautifully, but also allows for a considerable amount of humor. (In one scene, a flight attendant asks a nervous Adina whether she’s scared of wind or engine failure. “Staying the same forever,” she replies. “And wind.”)
The novel’s unhappy moments are heartbreaking; Bertino perfectly evokes the feeling of the moment when a person realizes that life can be arbitrary and unfair. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Adina reflects on the “excessive I love yous” she hears: “What would these people say instead of I love you? I’m scared. I worry I will never recover. I love you is a can of soda that comes free with every meal. Yet every day humans suffer from lack of hearing it.”
“Beautyland” is 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. “Humans want to find aliens so they feel less alone,” as Adina writes. “They don’t know there is nothing lonelier than an alien.”
By Marie-Helene Bertino
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., $28
Michael Schaub is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.