Published by Penguin on April 4, 2023
Genres: Horror, Queer
Source: the library
Sly, surprising, and razor-sharp, Natural Beauty follows a young musician into an elite, beauty-obsessed world where perfection comes at a staggering cost.
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.
A piercing, darkly funny debut, Natural Beauty explores questions of consumerism, self-worth, race, and identity—and leaves readers with a shocking and unsettling truth.
Ling Ling Huang’s debut novel is a chilling and provocative body horror about beauty, consumption, and capitalism.
Natural Beauty follows an unnamed narrator through her adolescence and early adult life in NYC. The daughter of poor Chinese immigrants – both celebrated pianists before the Cultural Revolution – she’s discovered as a piano prodigy and rapidly sent off to the Conservatory. Despite her talent, she becomes an outcast in her new environment, quickly taught by her peers’ cruelty that there’s something shameful in being poor and undesirable. Near the end of her schooling, her parents suffer a serious accident requiring expensive residential care. Desperate to take care of her beloved parents, the narrator takes a high-paying job at the mysterious and exclusive wellness brand Holistik.
Founded by Victor, an entrepreneur modelled after creeps like Elon Musk, Holistik’s products can do the impossible. Serums to lengthen eyelashes by four times, powders to prevent greasy or frizzy hair, vitamins to regulate your nervous system and reduce stress – all this and more can be found at Holistik. Ethically made in collaboration with local Indigenous groups, of course.
Nothing is as it seems and Holistik is, of course, too good to be true. The employees at Holistik all look the same (white), and the narrator resignedly accepts her lot as a diversity hire. But Holistik has an uncanny effect on its employees and soon she finds herself…starting to look different, too.
Natural Beauty thoughtfully engages with critiques of the beauty and wellness industries without being obvious or preachy. We all know that these industries perpetuate and feed on the insecurities of their clientele, controlling their behaviours – and sometimes even their thoughts. Huang evenhandedly portrays how beauty and wellness intersects with other forces like white supremacy and capitalism.
The unnamed protagonist has a strong voice, her outsider’s perspective on the excess and wealth of “the business” inviting readers to share in her observations. Her simultaneous repulsion and obsession with the cult of beauty is compelling and relatable. As a graduate of an elite music Conservatory, who is she to say that beauty has no value? If beautiful aesthetics in music are such high art, why are beautiful physical aesthetics considered shallow? There are no easy answers provided here.
Admittedly, the story is rather predictable. Shocking reveals abound, but they’re gross-shocking not surprising-shocking. This didn’t detract from my enjoyment much, because the tight pacing kept me from getting bored. Huang’s inclusion of two timelines (the present at Holistik and the past at the Conservatory) is smart: it develops both characterization and tension.
Recommended for horror fans and readers interested in the beauty and wellness industries.