“We smile while our faces burn, we love it so. Because we know magic is happening, just like in a fairy tale.” By the time Mirabelle Nour—the narrator of Mona Awad’s latest novel, Rouge (Marysue Rucci Books)—speaks this gauzy ode to exfoliation into the mirror, she is already in too deep. With acid-based toners, yes, but more troublingly with a rogue spa, the same one that wooed her late mother before a sudden tumble off a California cliff. Set in a modern world of skin care tutorials and microcurrent devices, the book trades in age-old symbols: poison roses, an imagined prince in the guise of Top Gun–era Tom Cruise, “fairest” defined by racialized norms. This quest for eerily preserved beauty unravels Belle’s memory and language (she swaps insanity for vanity, ridicule for ritual) before the book reaches a vivid body-horror climax. Rouge has already been optioned for film, proof that beauty extremes have a certain subset gripped. “After all,” says the spa’s Woman in Red, “self-care is really our only escape from the Abyss, is it not?”
Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the phrase hyaluronic acid has heard some version of that message—the siren call of an oceanic beauty and wellness industry. A stack of recent fiction digs into this anxiety, though whether such novels qualify as an escape depends on how entwined a reader feels with this complicated slice of culture.
Allie Rowbottom’s Aesthetica (Soho Press) was a perceptive entry last fall, prefiguring a wave of influencer remorse. In it, Anna Wrey, at 19, disses her mother’s outdated feminism in favor of “my body, my content” digital empowerment. Now 35 (“I don’t bother using face recognition, it never works for me”), she has booked one final surgery: a high-risk procedure that is like a factory reset, undoing every last modification. The Glow (Random House), Jessie Gaynor’s debut novel, centers on a conspiring PR woman who transforms a small-scale healer into a wellness machine, with the sour taste of monetized authenticity.
The promise of self-improvement is darkly seductive. In Ling Ling Huang’s Natural Beauty (Dutton)—released this spring and in development for a television adaptation with Constance Wu coproducing—a former pianist working at a biotech-funded wellness store initially thrills at her regimen’s effects (defined eyelids, opalescent skin). By the end, her dismissal of rigid aesthetics is what lingers: “That fine line between beauty and ugliness, ripeness and rot, is what keeps an audience listening with held breath.”