Audiobook Mini-Review — Beautiful Country

15 Jun

I kept going back and forth on whether to review Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang. One of the members of a book club I am in recommended it after seeing it on Jenna Bush Hager’s book list. For those of you who only read Christian Fiction or clean reads, this book is probably not for you (the adult language alone will turn many off). Beautiful Country is a memoir of Wang’s childhood spent as an undocumented immigrant. Her parents brought her to America legally — they all had visas. But they let them lapse and spent a number of years in NYC working low paying, off the books jobs. Wang’s perceptions of prejudice, poverty, fear of discovery as a Chinese illegal immigrant are interesting, but . . . . My book club had mixed reactions. One member found the book boring and disliked some of the language and descriptions. Others felt is was just ok. One thing we all agreed upon was that our country’s immigration policy, then and now, is abysmal and in need of an overhaul. The book is from a child’s perspective, so we did not get answers to a few of our questions about her experiences. Wang is the narrator for the audiobook, which was a plus for me.

While I would never have picked this book up on my own, I admit I am glad I listened to it. A reader does not have to agree with the politics of an author to gain insight into their struggles and viewpoints. For more info, check out the details below.

(I purchase the audiobook from Audible. All opinions expressed are mine alone.)

In Chinese, the word for America, Mei Guo, translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when seven-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and it will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.

In Chinatown, Qian’s parents labor in sweatshops. Instead of laughing at her jokes, they fight constantly, taking out the stress of their new life on one another. Shunned by her classmates and teachers for her limited English, Qian takes refuge in the library and masters the language through books, coming to think of The Berenstain Bears as her first American friends. And where there is delight to be found, Qian relishes it: her first bite of gloriously greasy pizza, weekly “shopping days,” when Qian finds small treasures in the trash lining Brooklyn’s streets, and a magical Christmas visit to Rockefeller Center—confirmation that the New York City she saw in movies does exist after all.

But then Qian’s headstrong Ma Ma collapses, revealing an illness that she has kept secret for months for fear of the cost and scrutiny of a doctor’s visit. As Ba Ba retreats further inward, Qian has little to hold onto beyond his constant refrain: Whatever happens, say that you were born here, that you’ve always lived here.

Inhabiting her childhood perspective with exquisite lyric clarity and unforgettable charm and strength, Qian Julie Wang has penned an essential American story about a family fracturing under the weight of invisibility, and a girl coming of age in the shadows, who never stops seeking the light.

Qian Julie Wang is a graduate of Yale Law School and Swarthmore College. Formerly a commercial litigator, she is now managing partner of Gottlieb & Wang LLP, a firm dedicated to advocating for education and civil rights. Qian Julie’s writing has appeared in major publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and The Cut, and she has appeared on the TODAY Show, MSNBC, and NPR. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their two rescue dogs, Salty and Peppers.

2 Responses to “Audiobook Mini-Review — Beautiful Country”

  1. Cindy Davis June 15, 2022 at 10:42 am #

    I appreciate the honest review and I like the way you phrased this: “For those of you who only read Christian Fiction or clean reads, this book is probably not for you (the adult language alone will turn many off).”

    • rbclibrary June 15, 2022 at 10:52 am #

      Thanks! I am glad that I continued with this book. If it wasn’t for my book club, I would have probably stopped within the first 20 minutes of the audiobook.

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