“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” In Mona Awad’s new gothic horror novel “Rouge,” released Sept. 12, the “Bunny” author takes the “Snow White” story to chilling new depths.
Once upon a time, Awad fell down a rabbit hole of skin care videos — the kind that promised magical, transformational results. There, she observed the aspiration and the addiction, the dewy surface of “beauty” but also its dark underbelly. Marrying fairy tale tropes and symbols with a perilous quest for beauty, “Rouge” holds a light to the industry and extracts the dirt and grime beneath the surface.
Mirabelle, also known as Mira or Belle, finds a pair of red shoes in her dead mother’s closet that lead her straight to La Maison de Méduse, the same culty spa her mom frequented before her mysterious demise. As Belle is lured into the glassy world of poreless skin and reflective surfaces, Awad paints a striking image of the modern beauty industry and the promotion of white, Westernized ideals.
Throughout the novel, the mirror plays a central role, reflecting a warped world and blurring the boundary between precious fantasy and precarious reality. Belle and her mother have always been occupied by their own images, but Belle’s off-kilter “treatments” cause her to dissociate from even her own reflection. Her image no longer moves with her. She sees her mother when she looks in the mirror. Mannequins become her “sisters” who communicate with her through the glass.
Throw in a shapeshifting figure who appears in the mirror and looks awfully like Tom Cruise — but frequently insists that his name is Seth — and the plot is nothing short of strange, though this has come to be expected of Awad.
While Belle’s journey to achieve her “Most Magnificent Self” is told in a linear fashion, her “brightening” treatments require that she revisit her traumatic past, told in childhood flashbacks. It’s during these moments that readers get a sense of her fraught relationship with her mother and the mutual envy that poisoned it.
Part Egyptian but raised by her white mother with “skin as white as snow,” Belle must grapple with narrow messages about what “beauty” means — specifically, young, Western and white. “Anyone who doesn’t fit within those parameters is made to feel less-than and envious, often from a very young age,” Awad said in a Q&A. “As a biracial woman, I’ve always felt both vulnerable to and suspicious of this messaging. So does Belle.”
On the other hand, Belle’s mother proves envious of her daughter’s youthful radiance, and this fear surrounding loss of beauty pervades the novel as a whole. When “beauty” is only fleeting and skin-deep, what is left beneath the surface?
Similar to 2019’s “Bunny,” “Rouge” has readers guessing what’s real and what’s not, pulling them into an unreliable narrator’s perception of an uncanny world. But unlike the MFA candidate, smut-loving group of bunny boy-killers in the former, “Rouge” describes a group much more sinister. As the mist clears from the mirror and disparate details begin to connect together, the realization is disturbing. Even when readers think Awad won’t go there, she does.
Just as much as “Rouge” is a grotesque take on the beauty industry, it’s also a poignant representation of grief. Awad’s characters are less than perfect — and their relationships even less so — leaving much room for regret but also love. Sometimes it takes a deadly journey through a beauty cult to realize the quest for outward perfection was never one worth prioritizing.
On the surface, “Rouge” may seem a bit too ambitious as it weaves together mythic tales, the modern beauty industry, Tom Cruise and a dead mother. Yet, each moving part contributes to a truly beautiful reflection on forgiveness and self-acceptance. It’s the kind of transformation no tretinoin treatment or diamond-infused elixir could ever hope to replicate.