By Kay E. Bancroft

Bertino, Marie-Helene. Beautyland. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2024. $28.00

Beautyland Reconnects You to Humanity’s TendernessThrough an Alien

The contemporary world is one that is persistently pushing us to wonder if there is still a positive future for humanity. If there is still compassion, kindness, gentleness. We are all seeking ways to find it in the smallest kernels of our days through special interests, holding the door open for someone, noticing the way light hits a sidewalk and allows the stone to glimmer. One such person who holds the superpower of noticing humanity’s beauty and nuance is actually an alien named Adina, around whom the novel Beautyland revolves.

On the day that Voyager 1 shot into space in September 1977, Adina Giorno was thrust into the world in Northeast Philadelphia to a single mother. Growing up, she felt she was different from the other kids, and one day when she was pushed to the ground in front of her row home, something in her clicks: “Adina was activated.” From this moment on she is put in contact with her alien kin on Planet Cricket Rice, with whom she sends communications about her studies and understandings of the human race. She is ultimately told she was sent to earth to examine humans, understand their ways of being, their intricacies, their fallacies, their environments, and ultimately decide if the planet is inhabitable for her race as their planet dies. Adina confronts the human race over the course of her existence in the most extraordinary and eye-opening way possible, through small moments of truly seeing how we engage with and take each other in, and sends her findings back to her superiors via the most advanced means of communication possible: a fax machine. 

From her youth through adulthood, she spends her days learning about Carl Sagan and listening to ‘80s and ‘90s R&B, moving through each phase of her human life while keeping meticulous notes and sending reports to her superiors. She reports on phenomena large and small; on wavy armed balloon men that live in front of the Auto World and do a little dance for you, diners filled with elderly women laughing and conversing at their weekly gatherings, people selling bagels, buying panty hose at the Beautyland in her home town, and meditating on her New York City neighbors with porch geese decorated for every holiday imaginable. “There are Snoopy enthusiasts…who travel the world, collecting memorabilia. They dress like Snoopy, name their children after Snoopy characters, and engage in debates with Charlie Brown enthusiasts…

And there are some things that are not so beautiful to some, like the taste of wine. Adina reports this to her superiors: “Wine is a liquid people pathologize in the way they talk about it, sell it, in the vessels they put it in. Red wine tastes like a dark-walled library and white wine smells like a woman looking away.” When her superiors ask her why humans drink it she puts it plainly: “Because, like many things humans enjoy, it frees them from their bodies.” 

All of these simple moments of our day-to-day lives and the relationships we hold are noticed so closely and beautifully through Adina, though she does not perceive her findings as anything exceptional. She sees her examinations of human life simply as a report, a diary, a catalog of what our race is doing as we occupy the planet earth, and Bertino builds the structure of the story as such.  You move through Adina’s awkward and exciting discoveries through sections of her life noted via the life cycle of a massive star, and human milestones: Stellar Nebula (Birth), Massive Star (School), Red Supergiant (Work), Supernova (New York City), and Blackhole (Death). Bertino continues to break the prose into shorter sections that flow from thought to thought, moment to moment, which bring to light Adina’s patterns of thought: concise, matter of fact, imbued with humor and curiosity about the world. The wit of language and unique structure on the page match perfectly with who she is: an alien discovering the human world, and this is why Beautyland is such an incredible read. Bertino has brought us a character who sees humanity through a lens not often seen through. 

Bringing humanity and both the breakability and resilience of our kind to the page through an alien living as a human woman is a miraculous thing to behold, simply because she is experiencing everything and examining it with the wonder of both a human and an alien. All of these experiences so foreign to her as she moves through them for the first time, as we all do when we move through our world, but as humans we have the guidance of our predecessors. Adina is an alien navigating the world of humans without a blueprint, and walking beside her through her journey makes us all feel a little less alone, as it lifts the veil on a truth we often forget: we’re all just trying to figure out life for the first time. 

Through friendships, hardships, adolescence, adulthood, celebrations of life, death, and the publication of an alien’s musings on humanity, Bertino has brought a stunning story to us all. Beautyland is not only a story of remembering the difficulties and beauties of being different, but one of discovering life as a person every day, and holding each moment tenderly, examining it with wonder, awe, and a little bit of humor. 

Kay E. Bancroft (they/them) is a poet, editor, and reviewer from Cincinnati, OH. They hold an MFA from Randolph College. You can find their writing in RHINO Poetry, Passengers Journal, Honey Literary, The Rumpus, & more. Explore more at

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