ARC Review: Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom

Liam Maher
June 3, 2022

Genre: Literary Fiction

Content warnings: sexual assault, terminal illness

Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: reading but not actually taking anything in, just vibes

Where to start? Aesthetica follows Anna, an Instagram-famous #influencer who has recently left Houston to move to LA and chase her dreams of fame. Throughout the novel we watch Anna at two stages in her life: Anna, the 19-year-old rising star on social media, and then 15 years later at 35, Anna who struggles with a journey of reflection and transformation on the eve of her ‘Aesthetica’ surgery. The Aesthetica surgery is described as a highly dangerous operation and promises to use ‘4D technology’ to reverse the plastic surgeries of a patient's past. If this doesn’t really make sense . . . that’s okay – I’m not sure it’s meant to.

Anna’s journey as a rising star sees her leave the security of her mother’s – who now only seems to be able to get in contact with her via comments about how much she has changed on her Instagram (?) – home. During her stay in LA, Anna receives a DM from Jake (alpha man with followers), who quickly becomes her only support in the city, acting as her manager and friend-with-benefits/boyfriend? (I don’t know if I would go as far as saying ‘boyfriend’, but he does pay $9,000 for her boob job, which she didn’t want? So, like, romantic?).

“Thinking about that cock,” I wrote and touched the button to send. I closed the screen, feeling like it was smart, to remind Jake of my implants. It was important to stay relevant with him, too.

Anyhow, the novel continues to explore themes around the price of fame and being true to yourself. Our protagonist is not only challenged by her isolation in LA and her estranged childhood best friend living in Australia but also the dwindling health of her mother in Houston.

As the novel explores the two stages in the same timeframe, there’s a clear shift in Anna’s growth and maturity, which speaks to a lot of the experiences we see online today involving catfishing, photo-editing and friendship. It was interesting to read these two experiences at the same time, but it also got confusing as it wasn’t clearly indicated or marked when a shift in time had occurred.

On this, there were so many parts of the plot that didn’t line up, which really added to a lack of cohesive storytelling that didn’t reflect reality. This can especially be seen in her friend, who travels from Australia to the USA and stays for a shorter period of time then she would’ve been on the plane. And yet we’re meant to believe that this character is struggling on university scholarship money.

Two hundred thousand followers equaled paid vacations to five-star resorts. Almost foolish, to want to do anything else.

It must be noted that a large focus of the book is sexual relationships and there should be a huge trigger warning for sexual assault – the book does focus on being taken advantage of by those around you that you trust, with a particular emphasis on keeping up with societal beauty demands (natural vs thick vs slim vs full vs curvy). Ultimately, the book falls into speculation around the social media industry and the #MeToo movement; however, it fails to do this in a comprehensive or considerate way.

The entire novel seems to be incredibly surface-level, and it does not achieve anything unique or add any additional commentary to the discussions around social media and #MeToo, which is disappointing and made the entire read a lot of work for very little payoff. It also lacked any real analysis of the various parts of Anna’s life that were raised to be of foundational value, like her estranged childhood friend in Australia, her roommates that we never read about again after the first few pages, her relationship with her mother and her health, just to name a few.

“Knees to chest,” the waxist said. She had an accented, angular voice. I held my shins as she slathered steaming blue to my labia, the insides of my ass cheeks. The room was cold, the hot wax a comfort. “Just like a virgin,” she said and patted before she pulled.

Secondary note, I tend to like reads that stretch the boundaries or norms of what a book can be and achieve (see No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood), but having emojis and hashtags scattered throughout this was incredibly distracting and just removed the sense of depth that the author was trying to achieve. I say this because it wasn’t an occasional use of the form but in replicating a ‘comment section’ you are faced with half a page of random emoji use. I don’t think it added to the value of the story nor created any meaningful understanding of Anna’s situation.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this read to anyone. I think the focus of the novel became unclear as the author tried to creatively add a novel contribution to the discussions around #MeToo and social media. I can see what was trying to be achieved with a work like this, but at times it became painful to read about Anna’s experiences, which created a disconnect between Anna and the audience and made it hard for us to sympathise with her.

Illustration of one and a half stars drawn onto a torn slip of paper.

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