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.
Not technically a horror novel in the strictest sense, although it contains numerous scenes of degradation and assault and, as such, it is a uniquely horrifying novel, a bracingly mordant document of a very specific brand of online fame ... One of Aesthetica’s best, most genuinely thrilling qualities is its depiction of the intellectual and ethical whiplash that results from the collision of competing schools of feminism and ever-evolving bodily trends ... Anna’s attitude to the objectification and the modification of her body is complex and conflicted, making her an admirably realistic image of a gorgeous Gen-Z feminist living through the tail-end of the 2010s ... Rowbottom leaves ample room for ambivalence, and while Aesthetica is pitch-black and occasionally distressing, it is never didactic ... To paint Aesthetica as uniformly furious or vicious would be, in spite of these numerous references to violence, incorrect. Certainly, it has its incandescent moments, but a righteous, sharp-edged satire about plastic surgery and Instagram would, I think, be one of the easiest kinds of novel to produce about the subject, and the tone here is a different thing entirely. If pressed, I would say that it was elegiac ... Rowbottom’s prose, in lieu of the cool and clinical style one might expect from writing on a subject that is internet-adjacent, is at times poetic, and quite often sweetly melancholic.
Like the movie Sunset Boulevard, this Hollywood tragedy starts poolside; and like any reality show franchise, it’s populated with characters who feel blank enough to superimpose our own hopes onto. Why do we keep tuning in if every episode is just more of the same? Because if there’s any possibility this time is different, like Rowbottom’s Anna, we need to see it with our own eyes ... In a book about looks, the language is tasked with turning words into images. Rowbottom’s buzzy and exacting vocabulary evokes a picture already resting in our minds and on our newsfeeds ... asks whether someone devoted to beauty can decide to know who they are, rather than simply change it. Anna is stuck between ways of seeing: viewing one path as necessary and another as indulgence, past and future, eternal and ephemeral. No matter which we choose, we somehow always end up right back where we started, still believing we can somehow make ourselves over.
The book moves fluidly between Anna’s last year as a teen and her present day, on the eve of surgery ... In a simpler novel, this would be the impetus for a standard but thin revenge narrative: A woman goes after the man who wronged her and gets a happy ending. But Rowbottom’s writing is more complex, less obvious and in accordance with Wes Craven’s ideology of horror: 'Horror films don’t create fear, they release it' ... Rowbottom releases fear into her novel using tried and true horror notes. Not cheap jump scares, but haunting ambiguity, psychological turmoil, the slow buildup and unfolding of information around the incident. This way of building up terror is horrendously effective. As I read, I felt uneasy, waiting for more information but also afraid to receive it ... This is what makes the book work so well: There are several undercurrents allowed to throb simultaneously ... Rowbottom’s writing is not some cliché-ridden, girl-power critique of the global beauty industry. The industry is such an obvious villain that a moral argument against it would be an easy lay-up. Aesthetica’s appeal is that it is difficult. It doesn’t critique Anna. Neither her desire nor her regret are pathologized, simply explored. Aesthetica is concerned with showing you who the characters are, how they rub against each other, how their lives and purposes bleed into each other and create mess. It is interested in that mess and contradiction ... works because Rowbottom sees and understands the whole iceberg, or in this case, the whole wheel.