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Book Review

‘Rouge’ is an Aching Fairytale of Envy and Beauty

September 17, 2023

The night I finished "Rouge," I walked into my bathroom to get ready for bed, same as I do every other night. I brushed my hair and my teeth then pulled on a headband to warp my face - wash my face with various cleansers, acids, jellies and creams. I coated my 26-year-old skin with luxury products and ingredients I couldn’t recite under gunpoint, products that claim to solve problems I’m not even sure I have. I was meticulous and organized as I applied layer after layer, the tightness in my chest easing with each circular brush of delicate fingers across my cheeks. It was the same night my grandmother died, but the salty streams washing away my careful applications weren’t tears of grief, remember? No; it was merely the “Diamond-Infused Revitalizing Eye Formula.” 


My experience was both proof and warning that Mona Awad’s novel “Rouge,” a surreal dark comedy about a skincare-obsessed shopgirl, hits closer to home than is comfortable. Following the death of her mother, Mirabelle (Belle) Nour returns to the seaside town of her childhood to find the glamorous Californian women had left her with a cracked web of inexplicable mysteries; there’s the unexplained debt, a strange women in red who claims her mother “went the way of the roses,” and an ad on her phone claiming they can make Belle her “Most Magnificent Self.” But instead of dealing with her mothers affairs, Belle hides behind the safety of her intricate beauty regimes, savoring the burn of her acids and serums, and finding comfort in the security of her SPF “overcoat.” Until a familiar pair of red heels leads her toward a glass house on the cliffs where a cult-like beauty spa welcomes “Daughter of Noelle” to embark on the ultimate “Beauty Journey.”


Throughout the novel, Mona Awad questions most dearly the relationship between mother and daughter - one that is often complex, wrought with miscommunication and misplaced emotions. The fears of the mother so easily trickle to the daughter, creating an aching fairy tale reminiscent of “Snow White,” a recurring motif throughout the story. Are we not the mirror of each other, mother and daughter? When we gaze into our reflections, we are bludgeoned by our own insecurities, obsessions, doubts, and envy. Will her insecurities and obsessions not become your own? We see the complexities of Belle’s trauma as she follows her mothers journey through the wicked spa; “Chock full. Repressed. Of the intergenerational variety.” And the vivid horrors hold a mirror up to the reader, questioning the weight of self-love and societal beauty standards as we nurture and protect the women in our lives. 


This becomes even more difficult in the age of social media and influencers, especially with an industry that relies on insecurity to generate revenue. Beauty and skincare brands dedicate their livelihood to preying on feminine insecurity and misunderstood narcissism. They brand products with handcrafted, surgically-perfected Hollywood stars, saying, don’t you envy her? For as the red-lipped mannequin sister tells Belle, “envy and desire are often one and the same trance.” They make us desire their products by dangling the unattainable right in front of us, crafting harmful euphemisms to camouflage colorism and ageism; “brightening” serums, not whitening. You just need the right regime. You only need the right products, and you could look just like us. Just like Belle as she looks past her dark, half-Egyptian skin to stare at her “Most Magnificent Self” in the warped glass aquarium full of horrific, red jellyfish - if you were offered a chance to wipe away everything you hate about yourself, would you be able to say no?


The brilliant and horrific conclusion to Belle’s spellbinding journey perfectly encapsulates the tortuous power of a mother’s love and the absolution of loving yourself. “Rouge” may be a work of fiction, but it embellishes upon the harsh realities of being a woman in today’s society, which can at times feel like the confusing, alluring, gothic horror Mona Awad creates within this story. It’s a book where the journey is everything, and the end is an unavoidable truth in which we, as women, find power in becoming not our most magnificent selves, but our truest selves. It’s a lesson for mothers, daughter, friends, and lovers - a lesson that reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from the novel: “Who needs glassthings when we can give each other our eyes?”

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