'O Beautiful' by Jung Yun
Former model, current struggling freelance writer Elinor is surprised at her good fortune when her former writing professor (and former lover) Richard throws her a bone-he's going in for hip surgery and would like her to fill in for him on a story. The publication is a prestigious one, one that has the potential to make Elinor's career if she does well; and the story, well, that's the only potential catch. It's about the oil boom in North Dakota, in a once small and sleepy farming town not too far from where Elinor grew up. It's a place that doesn't hold particularly good memories because while she was a kid, it was pretty difficult being the biracial (white and Korean) daughter of a military man and a mother that most of their neighbors thought of as little more than a curiosity.
It is also the site of Elinor's greatest childhood trauma-her mother's abandonment of her father, Elinor and her sister, leaving her husband angry and her teenaged daughters alone to cope with the challenges of being among the very few non-white people for miles around. As soon as she was old enough, Elinor escaped N. Dakota for New York City where she saw limited success as a model and has since been living a modest existence, eking out a living as a writer. Richard's call, though it seems like a plum opportunity at first, begins to go south before Elinor even lands in her destination, and grows more complicated from there on out, forcing her to confront the very same thorny questions and demons she escaped so long ago, as well as some new and much more confounding ones.
This is my favorite kind of literary fiction. It was relatable, neither too lofty nor self-consciously literary, and most of all not cryptic or emotionally inaccessible. Jung Yun writes very smart fiction, that is intended to be read and understood, and felt. There was plenty to feel in this one, as it wasn't just a story about Elinor and the territory of her life, but about the physical territory she left behind and is now returning to; and about how changed it is upon her return. It is about how immense prosperity can co-exist uncomfortably with extraordinary need and deprivation; and about how under the right (or wrong) circumstances, human beings can revert to their most base selves. A fair amount of this book was educational, describing in stark detail what the black gold rush did to the land, to people, communities and their way of life; and how all of those things intersect with the already fraught issues of race, gender, and economic inequality.
I rushed through this one in a day, listening as well as reading voraciously. The narrator was flawless so I did something I very rarely do--I listened even when I could have read. Usually listening is a second choice for me, and happens only when reading a novel is impossible or impractical. But this audiobook was an exception. I will look for this narrator again. (I've only done that once before with the narrator of 'Underground Airlines' by Ben Winters)
I especially loved the character of Elinor. She was believably flawed, in the way that many of us are flawed. She believed all the "correct" things and articulated them perfectly to herself and others, even while deluding herself about how many of those same principles and beliefs applied to her own life and experience. She lied to herself a little, as we all do. That made me love and believe her, and feel empathy for her.
Excellent, thoughtful and very, very engaging work by this author. I was excited when I realized I have her debut, 'Shelter'. I won't wait too long before reading it.