Over the last couple months, I’ve noticed an increase in fiction that mixes body horror and standards of beauty. These books tend to fall in the thriller or horror genres by mimicking current social anxieties. By mirroring what is happening in society today, authors are writing about the fears that keep us up at night. I had been introduced to this genre of books when I read, and then watched, Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. The darker side of the wellness and beauty industry has always fascinated me (my love of cults definitely feeds into this vein), so this genre of killer wellness fiction/body horror was a natural fit. While researching for this blog, I noticed that while the dark sides of the wellness industry are present in these books, there are also related themes stretching across many of them (science fiction biotechnology, influencer culture, celebrity gurus) all told from a mostly female point-of-view.
All of the below titles are owned by the Davenport Public Library. Descriptions have been provided by the publishers.
Rouge by Mona Awad
For as long as she can remember, Belle has been insidiously obsessed with her skin and skincare videos. When her estranged mother Noelle mysteriously dies, Belle finds herself back in Southern California, dealing with her mother’s considerable debts and grappling with lingering questions about her death. The stakes escalate when a strange woman in red appears at the funeral, offering a tantalizing clue about her mother’s demise, followed by a cryptic video about a transformative spa experience. With the help of a pair of red shoes, Belle is lured into the barbed embrace of La Maison de Méduse, the same lavish, culty spa to which her mother was devoted. There, Belle discovers the frightening secret behind her (and her mother’s) obsession with the mirror—and the great shimmering depths (and demons) that lurk on the other side of the glass.
Snow White meets Eyes Wide Shut in this surreal descent into the dark side of beauty, envy, grief, and the complicated love between mothers and daughters. With black humor and seductive horror, Rouge explores the cult-like nature of the beauty industry—as well as the danger of internalizing its pitiless gaze. Brimming with California sunshine and blood-red rose petals, Rouge holds up a warped mirror to our relationship with mortality, our collective fixation with the surface, and the wondrous, deep longing that might lie beneath. – Simon & Schuster
The Glow by Jessie Gaynor
Jane Dorner has two modes: PR Jane, twenty-five, chummy, and eager to sell you a feminist vibrator or a self-care/bereavement subscription box; and Actual Jane, twenty-nine, drifting through mediocre workdays and lackluster dates while paralyzed by her crushing mountain of overdue medical bills. When her job performance is called into question, Jane’s last-ditch effort to preserve her livelihood and pay off her debt is to land a white whale of a client.
Enter the impossibly gorgeous Cass—whom Jane discovers scrolling through Instagram—and her unassuming husband, Tom—proprietors of a “wellness retreat” based out of a ramshackle country house that may or may not be giving off cult vibes. Suddenly Jane realizes she might have found the one ladder she can climb—if she can convince them that transforming Cass herself into a high-end wellness brand is the key to all three of their futures. Magnetic yet mysterious, Cass is primed to be an influencer: She speaks in a mix of inspirational quotes and Zen koans, eats only zucchini (the most spiritually nourishing vegetable), and has baby-perfect skin. Despite Tom’s reticence about selling out, Jane sets out to mold Cass into the kind of guru who can offer inner peace and make your skin glow—all at a hefty price, of course. As Jane reckons with her own long-dormant ambitions, she wonders: Can a person really “do good” for others while profiting off them? And what parts of our selves do we lose when we trade power, influence, and beauty? – Penguin Random House
Chrysalis by Anna Metcalfe
It was hard to be in the present, she said, but if her body were heavier and more in control, then her thoughts would clear and her mind would recover its power.
What happens when a woman dares to take up space? An enigmatic young woman drastically transforms her body, working to become bigger, stronger, and stiller in the wake of a trauma. We see her through the eyes of three people, each differently mesmerized by her, as they reckon with the consequences of her bizarre metamorphosis. Each of them leaves us with a puzzle piece of who she was before she became someone else.
Elliot, a recluse who notices her at the gym, witnesses her physical evolution and becomes her first acolyte. Bella, her mother, worries about the intense effect her daughter’s new way of life is beginning to have on others, and she reflects on their relationship, a close cocoon from which her daughter has broken free. Susie, her ex-colleague and best friend, offers her sanctuary and support as she makes the transition to self-created online phenomenon, posting viral meditation videos that encourage her followers to join her in achieving self-sufficiency by isolating themselves from everyone else in their lives.
Uncanny, alluring, and intimate, Chrysalis raises vital questions about selfhood and solitude. This daring novel asks if it is possible for a woman to have agency over her body while remaining part of society, and then offers its own explosive answer. – Penguin Random House
Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom
At 19, she was an Instagram celebrity. Now, at 35, she works behind the cosmetic counter at the “black and white store,” peddling anti-aging products to women seeking physical and spiritual transformation. She too is seeking rebirth. She’s about to undergo the high-risk, elective surgery Aesthetica™, a procedure that will reverse all her past plastic surgery procedures, returning her, she hopes, to a truer self. Provided she survives the knife.
But on the eve of the surgery, her traumatic past resurfaces when she is asked to participate in the public takedown of her former manager/boyfriend, who has rebranded himself as a paragon of “woke” masculinity in the post-#MeToo world. With the hours ticking down to her surgery, she must confront the ugly truth about her experiences on and off the Instagram grid.
Propulsive, dark, and moving, Aesthetica is a Veronica for the age of “Instagram face,” delivering a fresh, nuanced examination of feminism, #MeToo, and mother-daughter relationships, all while confronting our collective addiction to followers, filters, and faux realities. – Penguin Random House
Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang
Our narrator produces a sound from the piano no one else at the Conservatory can. She employs a technique she learned from her parents—also talented musicians—who fled China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. But when an accident leaves her parents debilitated, she abandons her future for a job at a high-end beauty and wellness store in New York City.
Holistik is known for its remarkable products and procedures—from remoras that suck out cheap Botox to eyelash extensions made of spider silk—and her new job affords her entry into a world of privilege and gives her a long-awaited sense of belonging. She becomes transfixed by Helen, the niece of Holistik’s charismatic owner, and the two strike up a friendship that hazily veers into more. All the while, our narrator is plied with products that slim her thighs, smooth her skin, and lighten her hair. But beneath these creams and tinctures lies something sinister.– Penguin Random House
Looking for something else to read? Try these other titles!
- Kismet by Amina Akhtar
- The Goddess Effect by Sheila Yasmin Marikar
- Future Feeling by Joss Lake
- My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee
- Lakewood by Megan Giddings
- Goddess by Deborah Hemming
- The Other Black Girl by Sakiya Dalila Harris
- The Vicious Circle by Katherine St John
- This Might Hurt by Stephanie Wrobel