“Aesthetica” by Allie Rowbottom

Genre: Contemporary FictionAesthetic
Publisher: Soho Press
Pub. Date: Nov. 22, 2022

“Aesthetica” is both a cautionary tale and a contemporary horror-like story with a “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” theme making me grateful that social media did not exist when I was in my teens. In the near future, 2032, a 35-year-old woman, Anna Wrey, is in Los Angeles lounging by a hotel pool, reflecting on her first cosmetic procedure back in 2017. The next day, she will have a radical, elective, and dangerous surgery called “Aesthetica,” which claims to undo all of her cosmetic surgeries. Her goal is for her 35-year-old body to look as it should in hopes that it will reflect how she feels on the inside, making her a whole person, no longer a funhouse mirror—a fascinating concept to explore. As social media grips the world, the author asks if someone devoted to looking sexy and gaining fame can change. Moreover, is it their fault if they cannot?

The author nails the desire to emulate a reality star’s life. Think Kim Kardashian. As the hours pass at the pool, Anna’s mind wanders back in time, recalling her youth. In flashbacks, we see her as a teenager who had just moved to Los Angeles to become an Instagram celebrity. The reader can feel her urgency. The more followers she has, the closer she gets to stardom. Rowbottom is good at building suspense and keeping the reader engaged throughout the novel, especially as Anna begins a relationship with a pimp-like man who promises to make her famous by introducing her to a world of seedy gatherings, Botox, fillers, boob jobs, waist reduction surgeries, and butt enhancers, which leaves her with a pain med addiction. I wish the author had gotten into why so many practice this unhealthy behavior. Then again, Rowbottom is an author and not a shrink.

Anna’s Liberian mother has a terminal illness. Anna goes back and forth from visiting her dying mom in the hospital to sex parties. She wants to stay with her mom until she has passed but cannot bring herself to take time off from Instagram. These scenes had such a heavy weight to them that I had tears in my eyes for both mother and daughter. Shrewdly, the author has made Anna’s Liberian mother a feminist, the opposite of her daughter, implying that she should be aware of ludicrous beauty standards. Yet, she often complains about her body’s size and shape. This is smugly in Anna’s mind as she “turned the camera to my face and spoke as I walked, Gonna be a big staaaah, I said and smooched the lens.”

I am sure that the theme of how far we will go to feel beautiful, even if it means losing ourselves in the process, must have been covered in other contemporary literature. However, I have never read them in either a novel or a nonfiction format. The subject matter is fresh to me. This may be the reason why I am so impressed with this author. The book is not without flaws. I expected the ending to have the same vivid imagery as the rest of the tale. It did not. My ultimate feeling was that I missed some parts. Still, I now want to read the author’s memoir, “Jell-O Girls.” I recommend this debut novel that forces us, like Anna’s mother, to realize whether we like it or not society’s glare on our appearance influences all of us.

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