A work of rigorous and lavish overthinking ... Kelleher approaches her subjects through a combination of cultural history, science writing, memoir and philosophy ... Kelleher interprets our ability to find beauty as a desire to connect to the physical world and a chance for revelation ... At once offers and exemplifies a sophisticated framework for what we do with our guilt in a world where there’s no ethical consumption
Ambitious ... Kelleher squeezes the color out of her aesthete’s project ... While her book’s historical scope is ostensibly larger, the chapters line up in a neat frieze of bourgeois tastes prevailing over the past century ... For a book about sensuous attachments, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things is remarkably removed from the organic, technological, or logistical reality of its subjects ... There’s no special reason Kelleher’s ruminations on beauty should be guided, let alone governed, by aesthetic theory. But her shying from such rigors (and pleasures, surely?) is of a piece with one of her book’s most maddening aspects.
A magpie’s nest of research and anecdotes about the objects that attract her, the book examines the tension she feels between wanting the things she wants—clothes, cosmetics, home goods—and acknowledging the murkier story of how some of those items were made and marketed ... Kelleher smartly opts to explore the impulse to buy rather than moralizing about it. The book manages to celebrate the enjoyable objects in our lives even as it parses their dark side ... Sharing Kelleher’s taste is not a prerequisite for reading her book. Her intellectual range and propensity for research, which here includes interviews with perfume makers and lingerie experts, allow readers to approach her work with curiosity regardless of their interests ... The Ugly History of Beautiful Things would be simpler and less compelling if Kelleher drew the same conclusion from each of her investigations. Instead, some of its dives into ugliness double as portraits of change.
Surprising ... She has a knack for nimbly threading together her own memories and tastes with the histories of the objects themselves ... By the end of the book, she comes to a détente with her own yearning. She recognizes that she can appreciate beauty without possessing it.
Multifaceted ... It's a lovely book but also, in chapters on perfume, silk, cosmetics, porcelain and so on, a book that reveals how rarely — if ever — loveliness may be uncomplicated ... Despite the title, this is not exactly a history of things, though Kelleher has included a great deal of historical research. She carries the weight of that research with elegance and ease, drawing on interviews as well as texts that range from antiquity to contemporary years. And while Kelleher engages with issues such as climate change, wealth disparity and racial inequity, this is not a polemical book ... Kelleher writes patiently, painstakingly, with a sense of unfurling not unlike the meticulous act of plucking petals, one by one, to discover what lies underneath. There are lines as rhythmic and lyrical as poetry ... Kelleher is at her best when she is unabashedly taking pleasure in the things she finds beautiful, whatever they might be, and even — especially — when they are also imbued with some form of ugliness or pain.
The book is a mash-up of history, science and politics; business, marketing and memoir. Which is to say, Kelleher is inventing her own genre as she goes, layering research and interviews with her own first-person account ... Essays are an ideal format for these rich, discursive pieces, allowing detours and tangents along the way. Yet the memoir component of the book sometimes detracts from the topic at hand ... Other writerly excesses range from the preachy to the precious ... One might reasonably conclude that the book suffers an identity crisis, of sorts, toggling between the research-based and the unbridled. Still, this is a strange wonder of a book, filled with delights and provocations, eloquent, cynical and astute.
Kelleher writes candidly about her personal experiences as a home and design writer, which involved crafting descriptive write-ups ... Kelleher skillfully dissects many kinds of things that humans have found desirable over the years. She intertwines these discussions with her personal definition of beauty and reminds readers that beautiful things can be useful for more than their looks. For example, fine dishes are for gathering, feeding and sharing, not just display.
Through personal revelation and scholarly research, Kelleher’s engrossing essays cogently explore the unsettling dichotomy between the precious and the problematic, the seedy and the sublime to vividly reveal the pleasures and perils in pursuit of ideal beauty.
Ruminations on beautiful things with dark origins ... Though occasionally pretentious and self-indulgent, the author has plenty of interesting things to say ... Kelleher has always been obsessed with beauty, and this poetic book is a careful study of its ambiguity and meaning.
Grimly illuminating ... The author’s perceptive analysis and self-reflection raise intriguing questions about consumerism, aesthetics, and gendered understandings of beauty. The result is a thoughtful offering as precious as the goods studied.