Thursday, August 04, 2022

This Place is Still Beautiful, by Xixi Tian

In her family, Margaret is the smart one and Annelie is the cautious one.  Margaret also is the one who takes after their mother and the Chinese side of the family.  People often assume that the girls aren't even related because Annelie doesn't look Asian.  And in their quiet central Illinois town, it's always been easy enough for Annelie to fit in because she could pass as white.

But then a seemingly random act of vandalism, where an ethnic slur is spraypainted on their garage door, changes things.  Margaret is upset and wants to call out the attack, seek justice, and challenge the entire town's complacency.  Annelie wants to bury the matter and forget about it.  However, when she finds out that she may know the perpetrators, she has to make some difficult decisions about her choices.  

While the incident is a catalyst, the story is less about racism than about identity, as Margaret and Annelie work through their feelings about their family, their friends, and each other.  And those stories about human interaction are really what makes this novel shine.  It's less about the place than the people who live in it and the relationships that you build with them.

I enjoyed the warmth of the story and the complexity of the relationships.  Given the magnitude of what Tian wants to address (including two romantic relationships, a familial estrangement, mother-daughter conflict from both Margaret and Annelie's perspectives, childhood abandonment, and sibling rivalry) it's inevitable that some stuff falls through the cracks, but the magnitude of human interaction is really the point of the novel.  For while the ending is rushed and the entire subject of leaving home is a missed opportunity, the closing words are a fit conclusion, "I can allow myself to think that this place is still beautiful, even as I drive away."

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