O Beautiful by Jung Yun (coming November 2021) is the story of the return of Elinor Hanson, a forty-something former-model-turned-journalist, to North Dakota near her hometown. Avery is a town full of changes brought by the oil boom in the Bakken shale, where people sleep in parking lots because there are no hotels to be had, and men far outnumber women. Elinor is complicated and something of an unreliable narrator. She escaped North Dakota at 18, moving to New York to pursue a modeling career and never returning. Her parents met when her father was stationed in Korea, and he brought her mother back to North Dakota when he was stationed there. Life was not easy for Elinor and her sister as the only Asian-American kids in school, nor for their mother, who left the family before the girls grew up, and hasn’t been in contact since.
As a former model, Elinor always attracts male attention, but she feels particularly unsafe in Avery because of the huge gender imbalance and lack of control exhibited by the oil workers far from their homes. She is interested in the story of the unsolved disappearance of a local girl a few years prior, when the roughnecks first started coming to town, but her editor doesn’t want a “dead girl” story.
O Beautiful is more of a character-driven book than a plot-driven one, as the main plot follows Elinor researching her story and coming to terms with her mother’s abandonment of the family. But at the end of the book, although it seems that she has a plan for it, the story isn’t written.
The author describes several people that Elinor meets as fat, or some generic description such as “round,” “doughy,” or “heavyset.” None of these people were really portrayed positively or sympathetically. It felt like the author was describing them as a contrast to the former model, Elinor, and to show how different the people in North Dakota were than in New York.
Elinor is conflicted about her feminism and its relationship to how women look–she is constantly harassed by men, but she has also used her attractiveness to her advantage, such as when she had a relationship with her graduate school professor. While listening to a “heavyset” young woman describe how unattractive women can get their pick of men in Avery because of the gender imbalance, Eleanor thinks that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with systems that classify people based on their appearance any more. But she had just gone to the front of the line to get into the bar, which worked “just like it did in New York,”
While I thought it was an interesting read, and enjoyed the writing, I had a hard time empathizing with Elinor. I thought the author could have done a better job checking her anti-fat bias, and could have portrayed a couple of fat characters positively, or at least sympathetically. I was also left a little disappointed at the ending, where there really was no resolution. But she did do an excellent job at describing the anti-Asian bias that Elinor deals with, and especially the constant, unrelenting misogyny that many Asian women face. Like the protagonist and the land the title describes, O Beautiful is complicated.
I obtained a free e-galley of O Beautiful through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.