The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty
W.W. Norton & Company
Beauty is inescapable, perhaps now more than ever. To a certain degree, of course, it’s true that beauty—physical beauty—has always been omnipresent, if not tyrannical; there have long been muses, models, and manifold examples of women whose beauty has the power to do everything from stop traffic to launch a thousand ships. And yet today, the insistence of beauty’s importance is particularly relentless, due in no small part to the preponderance of social media and selfies; it has become impossible to get away from the carefully curated images that people present of themselves, images chosen to showcase beauty and hide imperfections. Even though an argument could be made that beauty has a more expansive meaning now, as we live in a time where ad campaigns are centered around the premise of promoting “real beauty” and a more diverse (though far from societally representative) array of body, hair, and skin-types are represented in mass media, the reality is that the importance of beauty is at least as powerful as it has ever been.
And so into this cultural climate comes The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, Amanda Filipacchi’s darkly funny, surreal novel about a group of New York friends, all of whom are struggling in one way or another with the the role beauty plays in their lives. The story centers around two dichotomous characters, Barb and Lily, and the way in which their beauty—or lack of it—profoundly affects their ability to find love and happiness. Simply put, Barb is beautiful, and Lily is ugly. Lily’s extreme ugliness, which the reader is assured can not be fixed by surgery or makeup (something about her eyes being too close together), is matched only by Barb’s extreme beauty (you know the drill: aqua-colored eyes, silky blonde hair, etc.), and it is made clear from the start that each woman’s genetic fate has sharply colored her life.
In Lily’s case, her ugliness has led to a life devoid of romantic affection; despite being an inordinately talented musician (she composes music that can turn literally any object—even junk mail—into something powerfully desirable), Lily cannot capture the attention of the one man she loves—a caddish, mediocre violinist named Strad (yes, after Stradivarius). For Barb, her beauty has proven more of a curse than a blessing: Her best friend, a man named Gabriel, killed himself by jumping out of his apartment window in an effort to die at her feet, rather than live with his unrequited love for Barb. After this happened, Barb costumed herself in a disguise comprising a fat suit; frizzy, gray wig; glasses and muddy brown contact lenses; and false, crooked teeth. Barb finds her beauty and its effects too much to bear, while Lily isn’t sure she can bear life itself because of her absence of beauty.
The novel has a very all-or-nothing approach to beauty—few of the other characters are given much of a physical depiction at all—but this extreme version of life in modern New York (complete with a murder mystery, masked lovers, an obscenity-spewing doorman, and a dinner party from hell) never really loses the weight of its message: Even if we can recognize the unfortunate importance of beauty in our lives, it doesn’t mean we need to accept it without a fight. Filipacchi’s novel is not a treatise against beauty, instead it attempts to hold up a mirror—fractured though it already may be—to our society to show more clearly what the costs of our glorification of beauty just might be.