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‘O Beautiful’ is an intricate tale of identity and belonging in a divided America

“ O Beautiful ” unsettles the reader from the very first page. In the opening scene, Elinor Hanson, a 40-something former model and aspiring journalist, is on a plane seated next to a man who won’t stop talking. He’s a familiar and annoying type, eager to hear himself lecture to a captive, female audience. Elinor rebuffs him and takes a sleeping pill. When she wakes, though, it is to a pawing and insistent violence. Did the assault really happen, or was it a pill-induced nightmare? The question haunts the rest of this enthralling and thought-provoking novel.

Half-Korean, half-White Elinor is plagued by doubt as she returns to her home state of North Dakota, where she’s been tasked with finishing a story for a prestigious magazine. She’s taken over the assignment from her ex (and former graduate school professor) and wonders: Did she really earn this gig, or did she get it because she once dated the famous writer, Richard? Can she pull off writing about how small-town Avery has changed from an oil boom? In less capable hands, a story about a writer searching for a story about Big Oil could feel cumbersome or dry, but Jung Yun, whose acclaimed first novel, “ Shelter ,” was published in 2016, uses Elinor’s return to a place that never truly felt like home to explore larger questions about power and belonging in modern America.

The trailblazing writing life of Alexander Chee

As Elinor takes up temporary residence in Avery and tries to connect with the local residents, she is astounded by how much has changed since she left. There’s been an influx of people who have come to town looking for profitable jobs and the landscape now pocked with oil rigs and drills. Elinor is here to write about fracking crude oil and shifting power dynamics, but as the locals complain of transient workers, who are often Black and Brown, her assignment increasingly becomes one that reflects a divided America. She wants to dig deeper, because “writing had always been her way of making sense of the world and all the things she didn’t understand.”

A sense of mystery and threat lurks in these pages. First, there’s the destabilizing incident on the plane, then Elinor learns of a local girl who has gone missing and of the racially targeted violence that erupted in reaction. There’s the threat of Elinor’s own past, memories of a mother who abandoned the family. Finally, there’s also a mysterious voice mail from a graduate student enemy alluding to a scandal with Richard.

‘Edge Case’ begins with a husband’s disappearance and turns into much more

This sense of impending danger continues as Elinor is undermined, second-guessed and transgressed upon as a woman, a North Dakotan, a writer and a biracial American. After an incident with a bouncer outside a bar, “Elinor feels a current of anger travel through her body, white-hot as it reaches some nerve that she didn’t know she had. She wishes she was taller and bigger and stronger. She wishes she was a man so she could get up in his face. . . . If she were a man though, there wouldn’t be any need to. Men don’t tell other men to be nice.”

Again and again, Elinor is angry. She is exhausted by being looked at and wants to turn the lens outward to examine the country that has made her. As Elinor finally claims her story, it feels as if Yun is speaking to the reader directly: Look at the power, misogyny and white supremacy rooted throughout our country — at how inextricably tied they all are.

Sometimes, Yun has a narrative tic of retelling what is already known from the details. In one instance, a man at a bar tries to manipulate Elinor, insulting her as a way to get her attention. We are shown the interaction through the man’s dialogue, then through Elinor’s interiority (“she also recognizes the game he’s playing, a technique made famous on a television show — some sad reality series designed to help awkward men approach women”), then again in her conversation with the female bartender who kicks the man out. We get it, a reader might say. But who can fault Yun for wanting to make clear the ways in which women live under constant threat, with daily insults building up over time? Because no matter how much we are told, very little changes.

“O Beautiful” is a quiet and dangerous story and an insightful meditation on how to make our lives here, amid the beauty and horror of our country. Though the novel opens with Elinor’s uncertainty, by the end, just as she is sure the assault on the plane happened, she understands too that this assignment is hers to own. This is not a novel about a woman who learns the meaning of home, but rather, about one who realizes how much she already knows about who she is and where she belongs.

Crystal Hana Kim  is the author of the novel “If You Leave Me.”

O Beautiful

By Jung Yun

St. Martin’s Press. 320 pp. $27.99

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Reporting on a Chaotic and Unfamiliar Place That Used to Be Home

In “O Beautiful,” all that stands between a writer and the career of her dreams is a trip to the land of her nightmares.

By Elisabeth Egan

Jung Yun was born in Seoul and grew up in Fargo, N.D. Her debut novel, “Shelter,” came out in 2016.

Welcome to Group Text, a monthly column for readers and book clubs about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions and dwell in another world for a little bit longer.

book review o beautiful

A journalist risks everything to chase a scoop, only to discover it’s not the story she was expecting. The one she uncovers is complicated, dangerous and personal.

book review o beautiful

Yun’s field trip to North Dakota provides an on-ramp into conversations about racism, environmentalism, journalism, economics and sisterhood.

O BEAUTIFUL (St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $27.99), Jung Yun’s mesmerizing and timely second novel, opens with one of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve read in a long time. Elinor Hanson, a former model who is desperate to break into journalism, is on a plane bound for North Dakota, where she’s researching a story about how the oil boom has changed the landscape where she grew up. She’s jittery, nervous and wants to sleep, but her salesman seatmate is in the mood to schmooze. She rebuffs his cringe-inducing advances and he becomes miffed, then petulant. “I was only making conversation,” he says. “Don’t flatter yourself. You’re not my type.”

When Elinor falls asleep, he does not stay on his side of the armrest. Welcome to the intersection of fear and trying to be polite, where a little red light of panic will blink in your peripheral vision for the duration of this novel.

Yun’s Mack truck of a story transports us to Avery, N.D., “where thousands of itinerant oil workers from recession-ravaged parts of the country” have descended “upon a town of 4,000 that was unprepared to take them in.” Elinor’s hotel is booked to the hilt. The local watering hole has a fraternity-basement vibe, with an air of desperation hanging over its mostly male clientele. Every resource — food, decency, kindness, peace, even air — is in short supply. Yun creates such a sense of claustrophobia, it’s as if the sky has been cranked down a few notches.

Elinor is in the area on behalf of the Standard, a Very Important Magazine, completing an assignment that was originally intended for her former professor and love interest, Richard, who has been waylaid by hip surgery. At his recommendation, she has been dispatched to conduct previously scheduled interviews and tell the story he envisioned: a postcard from a place altered by greed, desperation and competing interests.

But there’s more to the oil boom than meets the eye, and Elinor is well positioned to make sense of it. She’s both insider and outsider, having grown up on a nearby Air Force base as the daughter of an American officer and a Korean woman (who eventually bolted, leaving Elinor and her sister with their father). Yun writes, “For as long as she can remember, people have been pushing her out of one circle or another, making her feel less American, less Korean, and now even less North Dakotan than she thinks she is.”

Elinor follows her instincts, paying close attention to the women she meets along the way. There’s the widow whose husband sold mineral rights to their land so he could pay his medical bills; now she can’t drink the tap water in her own home. There’s the club dancer living in a parking lot with her abusive boyfriend, the bartender who’s seen it all and Elinor’s sister, Maren, whose attempts to reconnect come with a slimy ulterior motive. Oddly, Elinor’s ties to strangers feel stronger than the slack connection she shares with her own flesh and blood.

The loudest voices in “O Beautiful” are the ones we never hear. They’re the perspectives and experiences of women who have disappeared: 27-year-old blond, blue-eyed Leanne Lowell, last seen jogging eastbound on Rural Route 1; and the 28 women, teenagers and girls (“a figure that’s both shockingly high and surely an undercount”) from the Mahua tribe who have been reported missing over a period of two years.

When Elinor turns her attention to their stories, her article — and her future as a woman of words — begins to take shape.

Discussion Questions

How do Elinor’s age and life experience factor into the unfolding of the story?

“O Beautiful” includes several scenes involving racist language. What did you make of Yun’s decision to include certain words guaranteed to make her audience uncomfortable? Did you feel they added to or subtracted from the impact of her message?

I liked how Elinor’s family back story wasn’t wrapped up and tied neatly with a bow, but I wanted answers about her mother! Agree, disagree? Why?

Suggested Reading

“ Nomadland ,” by Jessica Bruder. This is the book that inspired the movie starring Frances McDormand (worth watching, if you haven’t already). Bruder follows an ever-growing community of older people who move, as she puts it, “like blood cells through the veins of the country,” living out of Jeeps, campers and repurposed buses as they chase seasonal jobs.

“ Amity and Prosperity ,” by Eliza Griswold. It takes a writer who is both a journalist and a poet to muster the scientific knowledge and the sensitivity that Griswold brings to the subject of fracking in this evenhanded account. “Amity and Prosperity” is, as our critic wrote, “neither an outraged sermon delivered from a populist soapbox nor a pinched, professorial lecture.” Two communities are cracked open. What happens next?

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Intricate and enthralling.


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by Jung Yun ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 9, 2021

A journalist returns home to North Dakota for a story and begins to come to terms with her childhood.

Elinor Hanson, the child of a Korean immigrant mother and an American military father, didn’t have the easiest time growing up in North Dakota, especially after her mother left. When Elinor was 18, she moved to New York, worked as a model for a long time, and then went to journalism school. A romantic relationship she had with one of her professors leads him to recommend her for a magazine story about a North Dakota town flooded by people looking for work during the oil boom. Beginning with the turbulent and unsettling flight into Avery, Elinor feels vulnerable and off-balance, a feeling which increases as she begins her interviews and realizes the town’s insider-outsider tensions are complicated by race, class, and gender, all of which recall her own difficulties growing up in the area as a biracial girl. As Elinor continues reporting, she meets up with her estranged sister and begins to understand the uneasy place women find themselves in in Avery—revered for their rarity in the population, paid much more at local strip clubs than men make as oil workers, and threatened by violence and objectification. Meanwhile, some of Elinor's former classmates in New York are working on a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former professor, and they want to know if her relationship with him was consensual. The tensions in both locations force Elinor to reckon with all the different parts of her past so she can begin to understand the current moment and her own place in a deeply divided nation as an Asian American woman who has never felt a sense of belonging. Author Yun has written an absorbing and poignant novel with wonderfully complex characters and no easy answers.

Pub Date: Nov. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2502-7432-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2021


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A wistfully nostalgic look at endings, beginnings, and loving the people who will always have your back.

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by Emily Henry ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 25, 2023

Exes pretend they’re still together for the sake of their friends on their annual summer vacation.

Wyn Connor and Harriet Kilpatrick were the perfect couple—until Wyn dumped Harriet for reasons she still doesn’t fully understand. They’ve been part of the same boisterous friend group since college, and they know that their breakup will devastate the others and make things more than a little awkward. So they keep it a secret from their friends and families—in fact, Harriet barely even admits it to herself, focusing instead on her grueling hours as a surgical resident. She’s ready for a vacation at her happy place—the Maine cottage she and her friends visit every summer. But (surprise!) Wyn is there too, and he and Harriet have to share a (very romantic) room and a bed. Telling the truth about their breakup is out of the question, because the cottage is up for sale, and this is the group’s last hurrah. Determined to make sure everyone has the perfect last trip, Harriet and Wyn resolve to fake their relationship for the week. The problem with this plan, of course, is that Harriet still has major feelings for Wyn—feelings that only get stronger as they pretend to be blissfully in love. As always, Henry’s dialogue is sparkling and the banter between characters is snappy and hilarious. Wyn and Harriet’s relationship, shown both in the past and the present, feels achingly real. Their breakup, as well as their complicated relationships with their own families, adds a twinge of melancholy, as do the relatable growing pains of a group of friends whose lives are taking them in different directions.

Pub Date: April 25, 2023

ISBN: 9780593441275

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: Feb. 23, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2023


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Through palpable tension balanced with glimmers of hope, Hoover beautifully captures the heartbreak and joy of starting over.


by Colleen Hoover ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 18, 2022

The sequel to It Ends With Us (2016) shows the aftermath of domestic violence through the eyes of a single mother.

Lily Bloom is still running a flower shop; her abusive ex-husband, Ryle Kincaid, is still a surgeon. But now they’re co-parenting a daughter, Emerson, who's almost a year old. Lily won’t send Emerson to her father’s house overnight until she’s old enough to talk—“So she can tell me if something happens”—but she doesn’t want to fight for full custody lest it become an expensive legal drama or, worse, a physical fight. When Lily runs into Atlas Corrigan, a childhood friend who also came from an abusive family, she hopes their friendship can blossom into love. (For new readers, their history unfolds in heartfelt diary entries that Lily addresses to Finding Nemo star Ellen DeGeneres as she considers how Atlas was a calming presence during her turbulent childhood.) Atlas, who is single and running a restaurant, feels the same way. But even though she’s divorced, Lily isn’t exactly free. Behind Ryle’s veneer of civility are his jealousy and resentment. Lily has to plan her dates carefully to avoid a confrontation. Meanwhile, Atlas’ mother returns with shocking news. In between, Lily and Atlas steal away for romantic moments that are even sweeter for their authenticity as Lily struggles with child care, breastfeeding, and running a business while trying to find time for herself.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-668-00122-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2022

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O Beautiful : Book summary and reviews of O Beautiful by Jung Yun

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O Beautiful

by Jung Yun

O Beautiful by Jung Yun

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Published Nov 2021 320 pages Genre: Literary Fiction Publication Information

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Book summary.

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, Jung Yun's 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.

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Reader reviews.

"In Yun's revelatory sophomore outing, a former model turned freelance journalist's big magazine assignment sends her back to her hometown in North Dakota...[a] tightly plotted narrative...Yun successfully takes on a host of hot button subjects, drilling through them with her protagonist's laser-eyed focus." - Publishers Weekly "Author Yun has written an absorbing and poignant novel with wonderfully complex characters and no easy answers. Intricate and enthralling." - Kirkus Reviews " 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 Beautiful opens 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

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Author Information

Jung Yun was born in Seoul, South Korea and grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. Her debut novel, Shelter was long-listed for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize, a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and a semi-finalist for Good Reads' Best Fiction Book of 2016. She was a MacDowell fellow, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic , the Washington Post , and Tin House , among others. Currently, she resides in Baltimore, and serves as an assistant professor of English at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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