This Place is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tian

This Place is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tian. Balzer + Bray, 2022. 9780063086029

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Realistic fiction

What did you like about the book?  Annalie is the little sister: sweet, a good friend, a B student, and eye-catchingly attractive. Margaret is the big sister: an ambitious, brilliant social justice warrior who couldn’t wait to get away from their small midwestern town. The twist is that each inherited the looks of one parent; Annalie looks like their White, AWOL dad while Margaret resembles their Chinese immigrant mother. The two girls aren’t close, but when Annalie returns home from work one day and finds an anti-Chinese slur spray-painted on their garage door, Margaret is the first one she calls. Abandoning her prestigious summer internship in NYC, Margaret plunges into a search to find the perpetrators, even though Annalie and Mom would rather let the whole thing drop. The story alternates between the two first-person narrators and each voice is strong, unique, and frustratingly stubborn, apparently a shared family trait. Over the course of the summer, each sister ends up in an unexpected romance that forces them to re-evaluate their plans, their sense of self, and their relationship with their parents and with each other. 

This book was a revelation! Tian has a wonderful ear for teen dialogue, does a great job with the small town setting, and manages to cook up two tender but complex boy/girl relationships. Annalie and Margaret both grow and change over the course of the summer, and not always along predictable paths. The underlying mystery of who committed the hate crime isn’t too hard to figure out (there’s not many suspects) but what was interesting to me was seeing the varied reactions of all the characters to the final revelation. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? I did wish we could have gotten a little more of the story of Annalie and Margaret’s mom; I felt she was a bit thin compared to her daughters and Tian could have expanded on some of her responses to their actions.  Also, we know there’s other Asian families in town (mom attends Chinese church and Margaret attends a Tastes of Asia food event), but the Flanagans never reach out to that community in the wake of the hate crime. I could understand Tian’s keen focus on the family, but it seemed unrealistic to me that other Asian-American residents, clergy, and community leaders wouldn’t be involved in some kind of response. 

To whom would you recommend this book?  This book shines on so many levels: it’s a family drama, a romance, and a coming-of-age, all with a social justice theme. Beautiful writing and pacing (I could not put it down) AND it’s a first novel. Plus, absolutely gorgeous cover. I would recommend this to all readers of realistic fiction, but especially those who liked The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Frankly in Love by David Yoon, or The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan. I can’t wait to see what Tian comes up with next! 

Who should buy this book? High schools and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? YA fiction, realistic if you genre-fy

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: June 28, 2022

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