On the first page of Aesthetica, Allie Rowbottom’s indispensable debut novel, 35-year-old former Instagram influencer Anna Wrey watches a group of young women contorting their bodies for selfies beside a Los Angeles hotel pool and reflexively clocks their faces for what she’s been conditioned to perceive as flaws. “They’re cute,” she thinks, “but each one needs a tweak to achieve true beauty.” Rhinoplasty, brow lift, buccal fat pad removal. After more than a decade scrolling, clicking, liking, buying, and wanting, Anna is a heightened proxy for all of us who have subsisted on a steady drip of faces and bodies that embody the true type of beauty she’s envisioning, an ideal defined for us by an app on our phones.
The novel, out November 22 from Soho Press, is uncanny in its ability to zoom in and lay bare the effects social media has on our perception of youth, beauty, and relevance, but it also raises questions about whether using your body as currency can ever be a form of self-empowerment, the cost of excessive self-promotion, patriarchal power dynamics, and whether the staggering amount of time and money spent to become visually “perfect” is ever really worth it.
“Possibly not” is the answer to that last question, as we learn early on that Anna, who now works the cosmetics counter at “the black-and-white store” hawking self-care products, is about to undergo a high-risk elective surgery called Aesthetica, which promises to reverse her many previous plastic surgeries, effectively restoring her truest and most authentic self.
The plot toggles between 19-year-old Anna in 2017, new to Los Angeles and salivating for online clout, and Anna at 35, adrift in the shadow of her extremely online past but also clinging to memories of a chronically ill mother who passed away years earlier and was a dissenting voice to Anna’s newfound Insta-fame.
It’s an unavoidable truth that most stories about young women, especially those for whom success hinges largely on the physical, will intersect in some way with what we now recognize as the #MeToo movement. For Anna, it comes before her surgery when she’s asked to contribute to an exposé of her former manager and boyfriend, Jake, a disturbingly familiar archetype who goes from preying on pretty young women to rebranding himself as the picture of woke dad-and-wife guy.
Aesthetica is surely one of the great books of 2022, a not-so-funny comedy of manners for the digital age that should be required reading in schools, book groups, and literary salons for decades to come as it deftly observes and explicates a hyper-specific moment in time; a moment that will continue to shift the culture long after it’s over.
Ahead of the book’s release, I talked to Rowbottom, 36, who holds a PhD in literature and creative writing and is also the author of the acclaimed 2018 memoir Jell-O Girls about influencer culture, her own feed, and more.
The below conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.