by Grace Grocholski
The dark side of the wellness industry is fertile ground for storytelling as two recent novels explore, where the quest for beauty becomes a corrupting force.
In her debut novel, Natural Beauty, Huang’s protagonist is a classically trained violinist who stumbles into working at a beauty boutique, partly out of curiosity and mostly out of desperation. After an accident involving her parents—who fled China during the Cultural Revolution—the main character is unable to support herself on a musician’s stipend. She must find work. So when she is scouted at her restaurant job to work for the wellness spa, Holistik, it could be fate.
At Holistik, the employees are all young, attractive women, pedaling expensive and niche self-care products. The narrator quickly falls into selling and consuming these products while noticing at first subtle and then jarring changes, all in an effort to become her “best self”. She takes on a new name too, “Anna”, which symbolizes a further ceding of self to the collective, and a further collapse of her identity.
In her first work of fiction, Huang explores compelling ideas of beauty, class, and identity to varying degrees of success. The plot can be uneven, and Huang lightly touches upon certain themes without delving too deeply. Huang’s main interest is the desire for beauty and the lengths people will go to achieve it. Huang’s command of language shines through, despite weaker plot points, and readers will delight in the shocking twists of the final chapters.
The devotion to beauty is also central to Mona Awad’s fourth novel, Rouge. Mirabelle (known as Belle to her friends), grieving the death of her formidable mother, is pulled into a surreal cult-like spa. After her mother’s mysterious death, Belle finds her mother’s apartment crammed with red-bottled products and cracked mirrors. Filling her time with online skincare tutorials and excessive product application, Belle begins to sort out the aftermath of her mother’s passing.
After slipping on a pair of her mother’s red shoes (nods to the Wizard of Oz), Belle is taken on a journey to a gathering at a palatial mansion presided over by a mysterious woman in red. To say La Maison de Meduse is a strange experience is understated: bright red champagne is served, veiled figures in black mill around, and red jellyfish float in a large tank. Reflective surfaces reveal an ideal face, clear of any blemishes, but at what cost?
Awad confidently plays with themes of death and beauty, weaving elements of myth and fairytale. “Rouge” of course is French for “red”, but also refers to blush when applied to cheeks to simulate a flushed complexion. Red, black and white are signature colors in the novel, which flash by in descriptions like a dark, trippy dream. Awad’s craft is strong and her confidence unshakeable as the reader is seduced, much like the main character, to fall into the story.
With themes of beauty and mortality, capitalism and hubris, these novels explore heavy topics with fantastical storytelling. The centuries-old quest for beauty is revived with every generation, as products and services are now marketed on social media. As these novels highlight, self-care can become its own addiction, and the pursuit of wellness and beauty can become destructive. In pursuit of an ideal, is one’s “best self” revealed or overthrown? Readers would be wise to pause before applying their daily or nightly products and consider: is it all just wishful thinking? What story is being carefully packaged and sold?
Grace Grocholski is a part-time librarian, full-time bookworm. In her spare time, she enjoys running, baking, and feeding her online chess addiction.