Anna’s relationship with her mother is vexed and tender, as is a friendship she renews with a childhood pal; their disappointment in the lifestyle she’s pursuing underlines how much potential others see in her. She is tethered to her influencer life, but also often more thoughtful than what people see on the screen, and her great error is her inability to see her own capacity for depth.
Even in dire real-life circumstances, like when she’s visiting her mom in the ICU, Anna cannot help thinking about what’s happening in terms of how it might look on Instagram. In one of the book’s most unsettling scenes, she records herself tending to her ailing mother, hoping she can harvest content from the encounter to make herself more likable; she ends up deleting the video after her mother begins to vomit uncontrollably. There’s nothing supernatural afoot in Aesthetica, but when Anna slurs “I’m a star” while high on Percocet, staring at her phone, proud of her own worst impulses, it’s as terrifying as any tale of a woman in thrall to wicked powers.
In Ling Ling Huang’s debut novel Natural Beauty, out this month, the beauty world’s menace is even more intense. Huang’s narrator is a musical prodigy in New York, raised in poverty by two kind parents who immigrated from China; she is unnamed for most of the book, but eventually adopts the moniker “Anna,” too, after she’s encouraged to pick a name that is easy for white shoppers to pronounce. After her mother and father are severely injured in a car accident, Anna stops studying piano and takes a job in a restaurant to pay her bills. She stumbles upon an opportunity to work at a wellness startup called Holistik, where affluent customers indulge in beautifying treatments like vernix facial wraps, stoma vacuum sealing, and pubic hair transplants, where human pubes are upgraded to mink fur.
While Aesthetica’s Anna has the preening, narcissistic Jake as its FaceTuned Mephistopheles, Natural Beauty’s Anna is lured into the treacherous, gleaming world of Holistik by a preening, narcissistic woman known as Saje. Just as Aesthetica’s Anna is cajoled into body modifications, Natural Beauty’s Anna is pressured to use Holistik’s products and procedures, including a number of bizarre and invasive treatments. (On her first day, a team in lab coats subjects her to a full-body scan and brusquely asks if she’s “afraid of worms.”) She starts to look like an entirely different person. Just as Aesthetica’s Anna is initially enamored with her medspa-assisted looks, Natural Beauty’s Anna marvels at what Holistik does for her. “Whatever I have been taking is buffing away the grime of an ordinary existence from the outside in,” she says.
Of course, she isn’t ever quite sure what she’s taking. Or how it’s working. Or what the side effects really are. Natural Beauty spirals into a nightmare, complete with unethical animal experimentation, toxic potions, and piles of corpses.
Like the beauty elixirs Holistik sells, at times the novel seems like it would work better with fewer ingredients. Saje is the company’s public face, but Holistik really belongs to a shadowy man named Victor Carroll. His twin niece and nephew, Helen and Henry, enter Anna’s life at the same time and in an odd way. Anna matches with Henry on a dating app; after they have sex, she then encounters Helen taking a bath in the siblings’ shared apartment. Not only does Helen not mind that this random girl has interrupted her bath after sleeping with her brother, she then decides to be friends with her—and doesn’t bat an eye when it turns out that the random girl also works for her incredibly wealthy and powerful uncle. Henry never emerges as more than an unnecessarily complicated plot device to bring Helen and Anna together; his presence in the novel comes off as a leftover plot point from an earlier draft.
Quibbles aside, Natural Beauty is a delightfully baroque grotesque. It can achieve a folkloric power in its creepiest moments—a scary story you’d tell in a posh spa’s sauna instead of around a campfire.
These aren’t the first spooky stories exploring how horrifying our pursuit of beauty can be. (Remember the 1993 major motion picture Death Becomes Her? An early classic in the Goopcore body horror canon!) But read in tandem, Aesthetica and Natural Beauty illuminate just how extravagantly repulsive the “grime of an ordinary existence,” as Natural Beauty’s Anna puts it, is right now, so much so that people will ignore all sorts of ethical hideousness in order to appear superficially polished-up. In their finest moments, these books exhume old wisdom for the social media crowd: What makes us feel beautiful should also make us feel afraid.