A sweeping debut novel about first love, complicated family dynamics, and the pernicious legacy of racism. Perfect for fans of Tahereh Mafi, Jandy Nelson, and Emily X.R. Pan, with crossover appeal for readers of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.
The Flanagan sisters are as different as they come. Seventeen-year-old Annalie is bubbly, sweet, and self-conscious, whereas nineteen-year-old Margaret is sharp and assertive. Margaret looks just like their mother, while Annalie passes for white and looks like the father who abandoned them years ago, leaving their Chinese immigrant mama to raise the girls alone in their small, predominantly white Midwestern town.
When their house is vandalized with a shocking racial slur, Margaret rushes home from her summer internship in New York City. She expects outrage. Instead, her sister and mother would rather move on. Especially once Margaret’s own investigation begins to make members of their community uncomfortable.
For Annalie, this was meant to be a summer of new possibilities, and she resents her sister’s sudden presence and insistence on drawing negative attention to their family. Meanwhile Margaret is infuriated with Annalie’s passive acceptance of what happened. For Margaret, the summer couldn’t possibly get worse, until she crosses paths with someone she swore she’d never see again: her first love, Rajiv Agarwal.
As the sisters navigate this unexpected summer, an explosive secret threatens to break apart their relationship, once and for all.
This Place Is Still Beautiful is a luminous, captivating story about identity, sisterhood, and how our hometowns are inextricably a part of who we are, even when we outgrow them.---from the publisher
368 pages 978-0063086029 Ages 13 and up
Keywords: prejudice and racism, sisters, family, Asian American, romance, racism, bullying, racially motivated hate crime, discrimination, second generation Chinese American, 13 year old, 14 year old, 15 year old
“Her eyes are scared, darting back and forth between me and my sister. And I’m heating with anger again, feeling protective over her. The sheer unfairness of my mother having to be afraid in her own home.”
“People killin', people dyin'
Children hurt and you hear them cryin'
Can you practice what you preach?
Or would you turn the other cheek?
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
'Cause people got me, got me questionin'
Where is the love?”
– The Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake (2003)
Annalie Flanagan is a child of downstate Illinois. At the end of this summer, she will begin her senior year of high school, and this summer couldn’t have had a better start. Thom, a popular boy she’s been crushing on since elementary school, is interested in getting to know her better. They’ve gone to hang out and talk in the park together when Annalie’s Chinese immigrant mother, who never cries, calls and tearfully begs her to come right home.
When she arrives, Annalie sees the word painted on the garage door: CHINKS
“The inside of my throat grows hot. My fingers are numb as I pull up onto the driveway, trying to shield the garage with my car. If it was a burglary, I’d know what to do. But I sit there for a minute, frozen. I keep staring at it, as if I’ve misread or I can divine another meaning if I just reread it enough times.
The word rings through my head, drowning out all other thoughts. I can’t interpret it. I can only listen to it endlessly in the prison of my skull.
I should call the police, but I don’t know if I even can get the words out of my mouth. I have to go inside and find Mama. But I can’t get out of the car.
So I do the only thing that swims through my confusion and pain. Hands shaking, I call my sister. And when she picks up, I start to cry.”
“In the light of day, the vandalism looks even worse, starker red against the white garage door. Like a scar. I would have expected neighbors to have noticed, but so far, everything is quiet. We live in a small cul-de-sac, so nobody accidentally comes through. The traffic volume here is virtually nil. Still, shouldn’t somebody have seen it and come by to see if we were okay?
The exploding star of anger inside me from last night has simmered down to a dull burn, but looking at the word makes it flare up again. I pull out my phone to take pictures from every angle and get close-ups as well as wide shots. Every click makes me madder, as if every copy saved of the graffiti is being tattooed on my body as a marker of shame.
When I’m done, I’m huffing and puffing like I just ran a marathon. I’m not a crier. I haven't cried since Rajiv and I broke up.
But looking at the pictures on my phone, and at the garage, I do want to cry.
To settle myself, I close my eyes and breathe. I won’t be able to talk to anybody if I’m a mess. The air is fresh and clean here and smells like plants instead of urine and garbage. I can hear birds of the non-pigeon variety. That is one thing I miss when I’m in the city.
Gradually, I calm down. When I open my eyes, I feel much better.
Annalie is right about the paint having to go, though. Last night, I thought it would be best to leave it up to make a point, but emotionally, it’s too much for me. I can’t see it every time I come out of the house. My insides will sear to a crisp.
The world is full of ugliness. I know that. It doesn’t mean I want to decorate my front door with it.”
Meanwhile, Annalie’s big sister Margaret is in New York, a star scholarship student at NYU. Margaret has completed her freshman year and is beginning a summer internship with a Manhattan consulting firm when she gets the call from Annelie. She immediately drives home, then decides to quit her internship in New York and spend the summer with her family. She lands a new, local internship, but walks in on the first day to find that her ex-high school sweetheart, Rajiv, is her fellow summer intern.
THIS PLACE IS STILL BEAUTIFUL is a tale of summer romance and local racism. Told in alternating chapters by the two sisters, the story of the slur on the garage door intertwines with the teen interpersonal relationships that evolve throughout the story. As the chapters alternate between Annalie’s and Margaret’s perspectives, we see the distance that previously existed between the sisters diminishing.
Annalie’s connection with Violet, her lifelong friend and fellow high school rising senior, in itself makes this a great YA read. Violet is a trusting, loyal, best friend who is there for Annalie when things go wrong. There are so many facets to this gem of a book for teens that throws light on the prejudices that too often impact somebody or some group for the worse.
"People, I just want to say, can't we all get along? Can't we all get along?"
–Rodney King (5/1/1992)
Recommended by: Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA
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