Katy Kelleher blends science, history, and memoir to uncover the dark underbellies of our favorite goods. She reveals the crushed beetle shells in our lipstick, the musk of rodents in our perfume, and the burnt cow bones baked into our dishware. She untangles the secret history of silk and muses on her problematic prom dress. She tells the story of countless workers dying in their efforts to bring us shiny rocks from unsafe mines that shatter and wound the earth, all because a diamond company created a compelling ad. She examines the enduring appeal of the beautiful dead girl and the sad fate of the ugly mollusk.
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.