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O Beautiful

Review

O Beautiful

Following the award-winning release of her debut, SHELTER, Jung Yun returns with O BEAUTIFUL. This incisive and insightful portrait of a small town in the middle of a great upheaval fearlessly probes not only the discontent simmering in small-town America, but also the lie of America’s unified front against deep issues like racism and sexism.

“In Avery, North Dakota, the epicenter of the North American oil boom, one might forget that the rest of the country is still struggling to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.” So begins the article that forty-something ex-model Elinor Hanson is tasked to write for Standard magazine when her former professor and lover, Richard, passes his research off to her while he undergoes surgery. Still living off her model savings and smart investing, Elinor is relatively new to the journalism scene, but Richard convinces her that she is born to write this piece --- the one that is sure to make a name for her and cement her career. As a North Dakotan military brat who can speak to North Dakota before the oil boom, she alone seems uniquely poised to write the before-and-after piece that will break open the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of a small, historically poor town that has started churning out millionaires seemingly overnight.

"O BEAUTIFUL is a novel that transcends genre; it is as propulsive as a mystery, as evocative of time and place as historical fiction, and as breathtakingly timely as contemporary fiction or journalism."

As a 5’10” Korean American, Elinor never felt comfortable in North Dakota, particularly in the military housing where she, her mother and her sister stood out a bit too much. As such, she has not visited her home state in over 20 years, so she expects things to look different. But even she is not prepared for the changes, especially in Avery, which she remembers as “just a dot on the map.” Once just a main road in and out and often-closed shops, the traffic has morphed into a caravan of dust-covered trucks and tankers, and it has transformed into a near-city of newly built apartment complexes and housing developments, car dealerships and superstores.

Richard already has done a bulk of the research, leaving Elinor with over a hundred articles about the Dakotas, each written through a different lens --- history, business, geology, environmental studies and crime stats --- along with a schedule of interviews he planned before he had to bow out. With his help and her own familiarity with the area, the article should write itself. Yet, when Elinor arrives at Avery’s Thrifty Inn and begins to explore the area, she finds a wealth of topics that Richard could not even conceive of exploring.

First and foremost, the area’s oil boom has attracted tons of workers, mainly men. Though they come from all walks and areas of life --- white, Black, Latinx, poor, educated, elderly, young --- they share one immediately obvious trait: none of them are lifers in the small town. Right off the bat, it is easy to see why Avery is struggling to accept their new neighbors: a town of 4,000 could never possibly be prepared to welcome thousands of itinerant workers. Now traffic is monstrously bad, everything is under construction, and housing --- or even just lodging --- is at an all-time premium.

But as Elinor, both obviously female and obviously “other” (or “exotic,” as so many men like to remind her), notices, they are even less accepting of the Black and other nonwhite workers, often bashing them as job stealers and criminals. The racist overtones were intensified when a young white woman, Leanne Lowell, disappeared a few years ago. Though town council members assure Elinor that there’s nothing more to Avery’s racism than “a handful of closed-minded folks pointing their fingers at certain kinds of roughnecks,” she knows firsthand the insidious nature of racism, and cannot help but reflect on her childhood as a nonwhite citizen.

As Elinor’s investigative reporting continues, she talks to roughnecks, widows fighting back against oil companies, dancers at gentlemen’s clubs, man camp leaders and everyone in between. But the story that emerges is not one of a town whose livelihood is tied up with the oil business, but rather of the patriarchy’s hold on America, and all of the other -isms nestled under it: racism, sexism and classism. How can proud, sensitive men, many of whom are already down on their luck and feeling forgotten, act civilly in an industry and community that constantly tries to belittle them? And more importantly, how can the women who love, work with and serve them protect themselves when they are pitted against one another and forced to swallow and internalize the misogyny that surrounds and controls them? While Elinor explores these deep, difficult subjects, her own life takes a surprising turn as her professor’s controlling nature starts to bleed beyond his notes and into her reflections on her role as a woman.

O BEAUTIFUL is a novel that transcends genre; it is as propulsive as a mystery, as evocative of time and place as historical fiction, and as breathtakingly timely as contemporary fiction or journalism. In a market saturated with stories of a divided, complex America, this book may be easily overlooked, but Yun’s tender, sparse prose and clear-eyed gaze make her sophomore release something truly special and poignant. She is fearless in her probing of the complexities of gender, race and class, but perhaps most striking is her ability to confront these issues head-on while also weaving them into her narrative so seamlessly that you almost forget that, as eagle-eyed as Elinor’s perspective feels, she too is entrapped in these systemic minefields. And so are you.

Insightful, shrewd, and surprisingly tender and heartfelt, O BEAUTIFUL is a searingly current and necessary addition to every bookshelf and library, and a courageous portrait of a country on the brink of unwinding.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on November 19, 2021

O Beautiful
by Jung Yun

  • Publication Date: November 9, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 125027432X
  • ISBN-13: 9781250274328