Allie Rowbottom’s Aesthetica is ruthless from start to finish—sharply interrogating Instagram culture, influencers, the world of eating disorders and much more in this new novel from Soho Press. Rowbottom doesn’t hold back: name dropping, calling out celebrities, and conceptualizing a world which feels all too familiar. Aesthetica is full of dark cynicism, but also bright light—it shines on the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, the way we handle (or avoid) grief, and the great lengths we will go to feel beautiful, even when it means losing ourselves along the way. Aesthetica is a memorable novel for feminists and skeptics alike, and it holds a mirror up to our culture in the way that the best books do.
Set in the not-so-distant future, Aesthetica’s premise is simple, yet clever. Once an Instagram influencer, thirty-five-year-old Anna is now trying to have experimental surgery which will reverse all of the procedures she has had done over the past fifteen years, a surgery she may or may not survive. At the same time, a reporter has reached out to her about her former manager and the sexual abuse she suffered at his hands, part of a #MeToo movement wave of journalism. Anna must deal with her own trauma while preparing for surgery; the novel weaves back and forth from 2017, when Anna was nineteen, to present day, a few hours before the surgery.
Anna now works as a cosmetics salesperson at a makeup counter, a bit of irony which is frequently present in Rowbottom’s work. As her surgery approaches, she grows more and more anxious, and we sink deeper into the past, which is smartly woven into the present-day narrative. The structure of the book is generally tight—Rowbottom is good at building suspense and keeping the reader engaged throughout the novel, breaking off at strong points to keep us interested. Anna’s Instagram striving as a nineteen-year-old is meticulously described through emojis, comments, and likes, a throughline which binds the book into a piece of textual art. Her relationship with her manager, Jake, is just insidious enough that we can see it crumbling around her, and when the abuse begins to occur, we fall into the drug-induced haze with her as well.
Aesthetica shares some themes with Rowbottom’s earlier memoir, Jell-O Girls; an ailing mother, who eventually perishes, disordered eating, and a kind of mother-daughter enmeshment that borders on the unhealthy at times. In the novel, the mother-daughter relationship is heightened, almost to the extreme—Anna seems to want to escape her mother entirely, and yet is completely numbed when she passes. The disordered eating in Aesthetica is treated almost as a natural consequence of Instagram fame: They all do it, and it’s treated as normal, although it’s anything but healthy. The drugs, the disorder, the discomfort—all of it is simply a by-product of fame, something to aspire to and accept if one wants to be a star. Rowbottom is obviously criticizing this industry by creating a character who wants to undo the cosmetic work that has been done to her face and heal from the trauma she has suffered, but she doesn’t make a moral argument for it. In fact, moral arguments are strangely absent from this novel. Rather, she makes a bleak portrayal of these people, in all of their horridness, and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions from her narrator’s pain, suffering, and victimhood.
Some aspects of the novel are underdeveloped. Anna’s position at the cosmetics counter, for example, seemed like a missed opportunity for humor and candor, but it’s rarely mentioned except in the context of her new life as a post-Instagram individual. Jake’s present-day persona, too, seemed underdeveloped; we learn what he’s doing now but don’t get a sense of what the Vanity Fair reporter has on him, or what a #MeToo article would do to his career. The novel is deeply engaged in Anna’s perspective, and this is occasionally to its detriment—we lose sight of other characters at times, which perhaps is intentional—only a self-absorbed protagonist would put themselves through all of this for the sake of being Instagram famous. Anna’s myopia makes the novel hard to focus on at times, especially near the end, when we get a quick run-down of her early-to-mid twenties, a section of the novel which felt like it went too fast and skimmed over a lot of material, especially after such a gorgeously rendered, in-depth excavation of what it means to be a nineteen-year old Instagram striver living in Los Angeles. The end of the novel left something to be desired, and although it came together at the end, the ultimate feeling was that we missed some parts.
As a critique of Instagram influencer culture, Aesthetica is successful; it mirrors the desperation of many young people who want to be famous, who may come from home situations they are not happy with and want to break out of their monotonous lives, or fall into the trap of easily achievable beauty brought on by cosmetic enhancements. This may seem like the way out for many young people, and it certainly feels that way for Anna. This reach for power, and the semblance of power that Internet fame can give a person—especially a woman—can seem like the only option for young people without support from adults to diversify their interests. Aesthetica tracks Anna’s descent masterfully, and as we follow her into the dark, we wonder about our own Internet addictions, our own drug abuse, and our own narcissism in the ways that all good novels make a reader question themselves.
Aesthetica is a smart novel—written to make the reader clutch the edge of their seat as they watch this protagonist make ill-advised choice after choice. It’s an addictive novel, as addictive as pressing Like or refreshing one’s feed to see what’s happened in the last five minutes. But ultimately, it’s a novel about healing from trauma, about undoing damage, both at the hands of other people and at the hands of yourself. Can we heal? the novel asks. Yes, Rowbottom answers in the final pages. Healing is a difficult road, full of twists and turns, snake pits and potholes and quicksand, but we can find our way to the end.
Publisher: Soho Press
Publication date: November 22, 2022
Reviewed by Joanna Acevedo