Beautiful Country, the debut novel from J.R. Thornton, is about a 14-year-old boy sent to Beijing for a year to play tennis. Interesting plot? Well, it’s based on Thornton’s own life as a nationally ranked junior tennis player. He, and the book’s protagonist Chase, both spent a year training, playing, and learning in Beijing. But this is not a memoir.

“The characters are totally fictional,” says Thornton. “They’re composites of several people that I know. But real life doesn’t have a fictional arc — you have to invent that stuff.” 

Thornton graduated from Harvard in 2014 after studying English, history, and Chinese. Currently living in New York, he leaves for Beijing in August, where he has a fellowship at the International Writer’s Center at Beijing Normal University. So, the guy’s accomplished, but can he write?

He can. The book, written simply and sincerely from the perspective of a teenaged boy, feels real, perhaps because the person writing it has lived so many of Chase’s experiences. A commenter on one of Beautiful Country‘s goodreads reviews noted that the novel felt similar to John Knowles’ A Separate Peace.

“I was really happy to see that,” says Thornton. “The same way that the [World War II] was the setting and backdrop for A Separate Peace, China’s situation is the backdrop [for Beautiful Country.]” Thornton explains that in the past 10-15 years a lot of Chinese people have watched the world around them change, with their tightly-knit communities replaced by skyscrapers. “They’re figuring out how they fit in the New China,” he says.

New China, in the novel, looks like fancy cellphones, KFCs that serve spicier-than-America chicken, and an at-times uncomfortable balance between Communist-era state control and an increasingly Westernized culture.

“Tennis is the framework, and there’s an inner story between the characters,” says Thornton. “Tennis allows you to explore human dynamics. It’s a microcosm of a lot of things like work ethic, honesty, and morals.” 

It’s worth noting that Thornton’s mother, Margaret Thornton, is also a novelist. Her book, Charleston, came out in 2014, and currently boasts 4 stars on Amazon. Margaret is a Charleston native, and while Thornton never lived in the Lowcountry, that doesn’t dissuade his sense of place.

“I think of place in terms of people. There are lots of places I can return to and be able to fit in seamlessly,” he says.

One of those places may just be Blue Bicycle Books, where Thornton will discuss Beautiful Country on Mon. May 9 at 5 p.m. 

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