From the critically-acclaimed author of Shelter, an unflinching portrayal of a woman trying to come to terms with the ghosts of her past and the tortured realities of a deeply divided America
Elinor Hanson, a forty-something former model, is struggling to reinvent herself as a freelance writer when she receives an unexpected assignment. Her mentor from grad school offers her a chance to write for a prestigious magazine about the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota. Elinor grew up near the Bakken, raised by an overbearing father and a distant Korean mother who met and married when he was stationed overseas.
From the critically-acclaimed author of Shelter, an unflinching portrayal of a woman trying to come to terms with the ghosts of her past and the tortured realities of a deeply divided America
Elinor Hanson, a forty-something former model, is struggling to reinvent herself as a freelance writer when she receives an unexpected assignment. Her mentor from grad school offers her a chance to write for a prestigious magazine about the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota. Elinor grew up near the Bakken, raised by an overbearing father and a distant Korean mother who met and married when he was stationed overseas. After decades away from home, Elinor returns to a landscape she hardly recognizes, overrun by tens of thousands of newcomers. Surrounded by roughnecks seeking their fortunes in oil and long-time residents worried about their changing community, Elinor experiences a profound sense of alienation and grief. She rages at the unrelenting male gaze, the locals who still see her as a foreigner, and the memories of her family’s estrangement after her mother decided to escape her unhappy marriage, leaving Elinor and her sister behind. The longer she pursues this potentially career-altering assignment, the more her past intertwines with the story she’s trying to tell, revealing disturbing new realities that will forever change her and the way she looks at the world.
With spare and graceful prose, O Beautiful presents an immersive portrait of a community rife with tensions and competing interests, and one woman’s attempts to reconcile her anger with her love of a beautiful, but troubled land.
- St. Martin's Press
- November 2021
- 320 Pages
“O Beautiful is both an intimate look at one life and a fearless exploration of the biggest issues of our time, from capitalism to environmental degradation, white supremacy to sex and power. With a shrewd eye and sharp sense of humor, Yun finds in the familiar tale of one woman’s return to her small town roots a story as big as the nation itself.” —Rumaan Alam, New York Times bestselling author of Leave the World Behind
“A wondrous, compelling, and insightful portrait of a North Dakota town as it struggles through a present-day oil boom. We may tire of hearing we live in an America of complicated times, but Jung Yun’s grand novel has something special and powerful to add, something that splendidly rises above the din. Her novel is a grand and stunning piece of work, at times humorous, sad, and breathtaking.”—Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Known World
“No one laces a scene with menace or fits more emotional range onto the page than Jung Yun. While serving as a snapshot of our contemporary moment,O Beautifulopens us up to the expanse of a woman’s life while walking us through the fast-moving and deeply devastating days of a community’s unwinding. With her dangerous yet graceful new novel, Jung Yun proves herself to be a writer who can rip out your broken heart and then repair it before your eyes.”—Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Ballad and A Land More Kind Than Home
“Jung Yun’s powerful new novel O Beautiful asks provoking questions as it interrogates the meaning and burden of beauty, from individual to nation. The choices that women make—or have made for them—are a treacherous territory of decisions concerning power and privilege. O Beautiful will make you think and see anew the strangeness and complexity of race, class, and gender in this page-turning, tender novel that journeys into the heart of America.”—Krys Lee, author of How I Became a North Korean
1. What were your initial impressions of Elinor Hanson in the opening chapters? How did those impressions change over time?
2. How do Elinor’s overlapping identities affect the way she experiences the Bakken? How does identity affect the way someone might see or tell a story?
3. Maren and Elinor grew up in the same household and were raised by the same parents. Why do you think these sisters turned out so differently? How does their relationship reflect Elinor’s relationships with other women?
4. Elinor didn’t mind being catcalled as a teenager because “it was the first time she’d ever felt noticed for being pretty instead of being different.” Are there events from your own youth that you look back on differently with adult eyes? What accounts for the change(s) in your perspective?
5. What coping mechanisms did you observe Elinor using in response to incidents of misogyny or racism? How would you respond/how have you responded under similar circumstances?
6. Elinor often feels minimized or erased by virtue of being a woman and/or a person of color. How does she occasionally minimize or erase others?
7. There are several “bad actors” in and around Avery who overshadow the presence of good. Were there characters in whom you recognized goodness and kindness? If so, how did these qualities manifest?
8. In a moment of anger, Kathryn Tasso tells Elinor, “Women like you make it so much harder for the rest of us.” Do you agree with this statement? Do you think Elinor agrees with it? Why or why not?
9. “Great beauty” and “terrible ugliness” are themes that run throughout this novel. What other themes did you identify that resonated with you?
10. How does the landscape of Avery and the surrounding areas serve as a metaphor for contemporary America?
11. In the final scene, Elinor imagines returning to the reservation to see Shawnalee and begin writing her story for the Standard anew. Why do you think she wants to do this?
12. What emotions does the ending of the novel leave you with? What do you hope Elinor will do next?
Men talk to her on planes. She doesn’t invite it anymore; it’s just something that happens. Usually, she travels with things to armor herself against unwanted conversation. Headphones. A sleeping mask. An oversized sweatshirt with a hood. But there was no time to pack today, only a few frantic minutes to throw clean clothes into a bag. She doesn’t remember bringing the Restoril—she doesn’t even remember having a prescription for Restoril—but thank God, she thinks. Thank God. Elinor shakes a capsule loose and examines the strange combination of colors pinched between her fingers—half calming blue, half urgent red—with the words FOR SLEEP etched on the blue half. Across the side of the bottle are the usual warnings, small icons with lines drawn through them, telling her not to drink, drive, or operate heavy machinery. She taps her empty plastic cup on the tray table, trying to reconstitute a full sip of Bloody Mary from the thin ring on the bottom. The capsule is horse sized, too big to be swallowed dry.
The man in the window seat looks at her. He’s been looking at her every few minutes since takeoff.
“Will someone be waiting for you when we land?” he asks. “Or were you planning to rent a car?”
It’s the third or fourth time he’s tried making conversation. She presses her call button for a flight attendant.
“I don’t need a ride, thanks.”
“No, I just meant—you know we’re only like two hours away, right?” He motions toward the pill with his chin. “My ex used to take those. They’re really strong.”
Elinor doesn’t know what to do with this information except pretend that she didn’t hear it. She scans the nearby rows, wishing there was an empty one she could move to, but the plane is small and full. Someone at the magazine made all her travel arrangements. If it had been up to her, she would have chosen another flight, another carrier. Anything to avoid flying in such a small plane. There are only forty or fifty seats in the cabin. Four per row, two on each side of a narrow aisle, a low ceiling that slopes even lower at the edges, as if the walls are curling in on them. Elinor is tall, a hair shy of five foot ten. She wonders how this man, who’s at least a head taller and pressed up against his window, can stand it.
“I don’t mean to pry,” he says. “I just remember trying to wake her in the mornings. She’d be completely knocked out.”
“I’d prefer that right now.”
“Oh, sure.” He laughs. “But what happens after we land?”
Sleeping pills rarely work for her. She’s cycled through enough prescriptions to know. The ones that actually make her fall asleep never keep her in that state for long. But even a restless half hour would be better than fending off a conversation that she doesn’t want to have. She flicks the man a tepid smile.
“I won’t be able to get out of this row if you’re passed out.” Now he’s smiling back.
“You’ll have to climb over me then.” She pauses, second-guessing her choice of words, which she worries he’ll interpret as playful, maybe even flirtatious. She puts the capsule on her tray table, wondering when the flight attendant will notice her call button so she can order another drink. She can feel the man looking at her again—staring this time, she thinks.
“You have some interesting tattoos. I don’t see a lot of Asian women with tattoos usually, not like that, at least.”
Elinor has been freezing since takeoff. Because of the cold, because of him, she’s been sitting with her arms crossed for most of the flight. But even this position can’t hide the abstract patterns that extend from her shoulders to wrists, the dark black ink alternating with the negative space of her skin.
“I have a couple too.” The man pulls up his sleeve, revealing a skull wearing a red beret, with two rifles crossed underneath like pirate bones. The banner above the skull reads 187TH INFANTRY DIVISION, DESERT STORM. Farther up his arm are three women’s names, centered and stacked on top of one another in ornate cursive font: AMANDA. ASHLEY. ALYSSA. Ex-wives or daughters, she imagines. She dislikes tattoos that function as biography. She doesn’t think people should talk about them—their own or anyone else’s. She rubs her arms again, standing the fine hairs on end.
“Are you cold?” He unzips his jacket. “Here…”
“It’s fine, really. I don’t need it.”
“But I’m actually getting hot in this.”
In his rush to take off the jacket, he pulls his elbow back too far and knocks it against the window. His face stiffens for a moment, and then recovers with a tight smile. When he finally offers her the jacket, she decides it’s too cold to refuse. She drapes the soft black fleece over herself like a blanket, grateful for the warmth but not certain how to avoid talking to someone when she’s wearing his clothes.
“So…” He pumps his elbow back and forth. “Are you from Chicago, or did you just connect in O’Hare?”
“I’m from New York.”
“Ah. Fun city. You must be like an artist or a musician,” he says, glancing at her tattoos again.
In her late teens and twenties, men usually assumed that she was a model. The polite ones plied her with drinks and conversation before asking the question outright, while others simply cornered her in crowded nightclubs and bars, shouting things like “You! Don’t I know you?” They didn’t, of course. By industry standards, she had a prettier-than-average face, but not a well-known one. Not the kind that could fetch ten grand a day just for getting out of bed. She had over fifteen years of steady catalog work and the occasional print ad. Once, she shot a commercial for suntan lotion that never aired but for which she still got paid. Toward the end of her career, her main source of income was a company that made sewing patterns. She appeared on the front of their pattern envelopes, modeling the finished products—matronly, shapeless clothes that resembled colorful sacks. It’s been years since Elinor had any work, but she still has difficulty presenting herself as something other than what she was.
“I write,” she says, rolling the Restoril back and forth between her fingers. She considers just swallowing the capsule dry, but worries it will lodge in her throat.
“You mean like Stephen King?”
“No. I write nonfiction.”
“Oh, so you’re a journalist.” This seems to impress him even more. “What newspaper do you work for?”
She’s not a journalist, not in the way that he probably means it, with a beat to cover and a daily filing deadline. Elinor glances across the aisle at a middle-aged redhead playing a card game on her phone. They make eye contact for a moment and the woman smiles at her as if to say God, I’m so sorry.
“I write for magazines, not newspapers…” Elinor realizes this makes her sound more successful than she really is. “As a freelancer.”
After a moment in which no question is asked, the man says, “I’m in finance.”
This strikes her as untrue. He’s a salesman of some sort. A salesman flying coach. She can tell by the jacket he loaned her, the black canvas bag at his feet, the notepad wedged into his seat pocket. They all have the same circular logo with a white letter H drawn inside. Haines, she thinks. Businessweek recently did a feature on their CEO, a smug-looking man who’d allowed himself to be photographed in a Stetson, standing akimbo in a field of pumpjacks and staring dreamily into the horizon.
“So are you headed to North Dakota to write an article about the oil boom? Because I work in the industry, you know, in case you have any questions.”
“I actually grew up in the area, so I already—”
“My company manufactures hydraulic drills. We were one of the first to focus on sales and service in the Bakken.” He exhales sharply. His breath still smells like the Jack and Cokes he drank earlier. “I’ve been making this trip to Avery at least once a month since 2006. It was pretty much a ghost town back then, but six years later and I hardly recognize the place. Nothing but roughnecks and field reps everywhere you look now.”
It’s not clear if he heard her say that she grew up in North Dakota, or whether he even cares. What is clear is that the polite shrugs and disinterested smiles aren’t working. Even her curt, unfriendly replies have failed to shut him up. Directness, she suspects, might be her only hope.
“I’m sorry, but these small planes make me nervous, so I was just hoping to get some sleep on this flight.”
“You think this is small? You should have seen the vomit comets we used to fly in before everyone and their mother started coming to the Bakken.”
“Yes, well … I’d really like to sleep for a few hours before we land.”
“Oh, sure.” He pauses. “But you know that pill’s probably going to knock you out for longer, right?”
She leans into the aisle, wondering where the flight attendants have gone.
“Whenever my ex took one of those—” He whistles and swings his forearm down, felling an imaginary tree. “Eventually, she had to switch prescriptions because she’d wake up so groggy, she wouldn’t be able to take the kids to school.”
“Look…” She tells herself to end it finally. Be kind but unambiguous. He’s tested her patience long enough. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m not in the mood to talk right now. I hope you understand.”
He nods a few times, as if he needs a moment to process. “Okay then. No problem.” He picks up the unopened bottle of water from his tray table and places it on hers. It’s the miniature kind, shaped like a hand grenade. “Here. You can have this. To take your pill with.”
“You don’t want it?”
He shakes his head.
“Would you like your jacket back?”
“No. You hang on to it. I wasn’t lying when I said it was getting too hot.”
She can tell that he’s trying to sound casual and obliging, but his cheeks are a bright, mortified shade of red. He rifles through his bag and removes a magazine, tearing the plastic wrapper off with his nails. Just when she thinks their exchange is over, he turns to her again.
“I was only making conversation, you know. I don’t pick up random women on planes, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I didn’t think you were trying to pick—”
“Yeah, well, don’t flatter yourself. You’re not my type.”
His anger seems disproportionate to what she said and how she said it, but Elinor decides not to worry about this now. She cracks the seal on the bottle’s cap and swallows the Restoril with some water. The capsule goes down slowly, leaving behind a bitter, unpleasant aftertaste. She finishes off the rest of the bottle and sits back in her seat, burrowing under the heavy fleece. From the corner of her eye, she watches the man flip through his magazine, which appears to be about motorcycles. The way he flicks his wrist, so quickly and forcefully, causes some of the pages to tear.
“Thank you for the water,” she says.
He turns off her call button and returns to his magazine, still red-faced and tearing pages. Under different circumstances, she might worry that she came off as rude, but he’s a stranger, she thinks—someone she’ll never see again after they land, no different from the other men on the other trips whose names she can’t remember or never really knew. It used to seem adventurous, meeting someone on a flight, deciding if she liked him enough to give him her number or even follow him back to his hotel. If she were a couple of decades younger, she probably would have been more receptive to this one. She used to revel in attention, good or bad, but forty-two and twenty-two are so different. She’s not the same stupid girl she used to be.
Elinor sinks into her seat and feels herself slipping, giving in to the startling efficiency of the pill as a heaviness spreads through her body. She tries to brush a stray hair from her face, but lifting her hand suddenly requires both thought and effort, more effort than her muscles are capable of now. The loss of control frightens her; a beat of panic flutters through her chest. She reminds herself that this is how sleeping pills are supposed to work—the exhausted body giving in before the restless mind. The white noise of the plane thickens, a whir of gears and fans and metal. She blinks back sleep, struggling to keep her eyes open until she can’t anymore. Then the dark tide drags her out.
Author Responses to Select Discussion Questions
QUESTION #4: Elinor didn’t mind being catcalled as a teenager because “it was the first time she’d ever felt noticed for being pretty instead of being different.” Are there events from your own youth that you look back on differently with adult eyes? What accounts for the change(s) in your perspective?
I went through a long, awkward, and not entirely unusual period in my teens when I permed my hair and wore lots of shimmery blue eye shadow and seashell pink lip gloss. (In case the blue eye shadow didn’t give it away, this was back in the eighties, and if you’ve seen my author photo, you probably know that this wasn’t a good look for me in any decade.) As an adult, I understand that I was trying to conform to the standards of beauty I observed in popular culture, particularly movies, TV, and magazines, but I wasn’t intellectually or emotionally equipped to ask myself the harder questions back then. Whose standards are these? Who gets to define what “beautiful” is? Why is the definition so narrow? Who does it exclude? Representation—seeing other Asian Americans and women of color in the media— helped me develop more expansive ideas about beauty over time. I’m also aware that inclusion—living in a world in which more women of color hold positions of leadership on mastheads and occupy the C-suites of entertainment companies—helps make some of that representation possible.
QUESTION #5: What coping mechanisms did you observe Elinor using in response to incidents of misogyny or racism? How would you respond/how have you responded under similar circumstances?
I’ve spent a lot of time talking with close friends about how we occasionally self-censor or “lock up” in response to racist or sexist behavior. None of us are particularly timid people either, so we’ve also talked about the feelings of embarrassment, disappointment, and shame that linger long after the actual incident, even though it’s a very natural human impulse to be conflict averse, temporarily stunned silent, or just want someone else to take a turn and do the speaking up for a change. Elinor resorts to similar types of behavior throughout the novel—constantly second-guessing herself into silence, smiling away lewd or offensive comments like they don’t bother her, letting people off the hook because it’s easier than engaging in hard, potentially adversarial conversations. Although she’s somewhat limited by her role as a writer to observe and report rather than influence or interfere, she’s also engaging in some common forms of self-protection to cope with the barrage of racism and sexism coming at her from all directions. I think the challenge for Elinor is learning to speak up when enough finally feels like enough.
QUESTION #11: In the final scene, Elinor imagines returning to the reservation to see Shawnalee and begin writing her story for the Standard anew. Why do you think she wants to do this?
Although Elinor has experienced a number of struggles throughout her lifetime, she’s not without agency or responsibility. As a child, she was so desperate to not be teased or ridiculed by her classmates that when their attentions shifted to the Native American girls, she was quick to turn on them too. As an adult, she naively believed that the disappearance of Leanne Lowell was newsworthy and unusual in the area, not understanding that she’d long been conditioned to care about a certain type of missing person while ignoring so many others. Storytelling draws upon the past, present, and future of the storyteller; it’s a product of one’s whole being. If Richard had gone to the Bakken instead of Elinor, his experience probably would have been very different from hers by virtue of his age, race, gender, professional status, and a host of other factors. His story also would have been different as a result. When she returns to the reservation to talk to Shawnalee, Elinor is attempting to tell the story that she’s able to see by virtue of her many identities and life experiences. It’s a small, but hopeful gesture that acknowledges not only her complicity in the past, but also her capacity to change and think beyond her own pain in the future.