Jung Yun’s second novel is a riveting story of a Korean American woman claiming a country that has done its best to reject her.
After decades as a model, Elinor Hanson went back to school and reinvented herself as a journalist. Barely supporting herself with freelance work, she is surprised when one of her graduate school professors offers her a plum assignment: covering North Dakota’s oil boom for a prominent magazine. Elinor, who grew up on a U.S. Air Force base in North Dakota, is curious about the changes this new gold rush has created, so she agrees to travel home.
Elinor barely recognizes the state she left behind. Its small towns burst with new arrivals seeking opportunities, and fracking has all but destroyed the land. But the anxiety expressed by longtime residents is dishearteningly familiar to Elinor, and her encounters with sexism and racism quickly bring back the trauma of life on the air base. Elinor is the daughter of an American airman and a Korean woman who met overseas, and on the base, other wives withheld their friendship from Elinor’s mother, while other husbands were all too willing to flirt.
As Elinor grapples with the difficult assignment, she is drawn into an unsolved missing persons case: a white woman who disappeared while jogging eight years ago. But that story doesn’t allow her to forge fresh investigative paths or distract from the rage she realizes has been simmering since her teens. In fact, the longer Elinor stays in North Dakota, the angrier she becomes, and a meeting with her sister only exacerbates the flood of bad memories. When some of her former classmates reach out about a harassment suit against her professor, she begins to question his motivations in passing on the assignment in the first place.
O Beautiful moves swiftly, with all the force of a finely honed thriller. As Elinor reckons with her past and the ways people have treated her, her mother and her sisters, she begins to examine the anger and love she feels for both her family and country. Open-ended and openhearted, O Beautiful may provide Elinor with more questions than answers, but it also instills in her a newfound determination to claim America as her own