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Once, when traveling for work, I spent a regrettable evening both transfixed and horrified by a marathon of “Botched,” which was the first show I happened to come across on my hotel TV. As I read Allie Rowbottom's debut novel, I found myself flashing back to those faces and bodies, to images of people who just didn't know when to stop when it came to fashioning a new version of themselves.

AESTHETICA starts in the year 2032. Anna Wrey sits by a hotel pool, recalling her first bikini wax when she was 19 and her highest aspirations revolved around increasing her follower count on social media. The Botox injections and lip fillers that followed seemed like minor, temporary body modifications. But when --- after her boyfriend/manager Jake suggested that she would need breast implants in order to take her influencer career to the next level --- Anna soon crossed a line into something entirely different, a never-ending pursuit of bodily perfection that both attracted attention and kept people at arm's length, never getting the chance to see the real person underneath.

"The book is both horrifying and hopeful, the kind of well-crafted novel of ideas that readers won't easily forget."

At 35, aged out of social media superstardom and working at the so-called "black and white" cosmetic store, Anna can no longer picture what she might look like had she allowed herself to age naturally rather than pursue every cosmetic enhancement one could imagine. Now, however, she is about to find out. She is signed up for the experimental, hugely risky Aesthetica™ procedure, which promises to reverse all past plastic surgeries and reveal the genuine self that lies beneath. Meanwhile, Anna is haunted by a call from a Vanity Fair reporter who is looking into the personal and professional history of her former boyfriend/manager, which in turn leads Anna to reflect on her own history.

Rowbottom's previous title was the critically acclaimed family memoir, JELL-O GIRLS. Although it appears that AESTHETICA could not be more different, both books touch on the relationships between mothers and daughters, as well as the pain of dealing with a loved one's cancer diagnosis. Anna's mother, a recovering narcotics addict, is diagnosed with a complicated cancer. Anna is called to Houston to care for her mother, even as she recovers from her own first foray into plastic surgery. There, she also reconnects with her best friend, who spends a lifetime contending with disordered eating and obsessive exercising. All three women depict complicated and conflicted relationships with bodies, and Rowbottom adeptly interrogates the various ways in which bodies betray us --- and we betray our bodies.

AESTHETICA is rich with other realms for discussion and consideration, including the #MeToo movement and its aftermath, the toxic nature of influencer culture, and the perils and promise of technology. It is also a portrait of a woman who is fundamentally lonely, even though, at her peak, millions of people follow her every move. The book is both horrifying and hopeful, the kind of well-crafted novel of ideas that readers won't easily forget.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 23, 2022

by Allie Rowbottom

  • Publication Date: October 3, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Press
  • ISBN-10: 1641295325
  • ISBN-13: 9781641295321