Review of Natural Beauty by Ling Ling Huang
Rating: 4.5 / 5 Stars
Favorite Quote: "There is no real beauty without ugliness."
Synopsis: Our narrator produces a sound from the piano no one else at the Conservatory can. She employs a technique she learned from her parents--also talented musicians--who fled China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. But when an accident leaves her parents debilitated, she abandons her future for a job at a high-end beauty and wellness store in New York City.
Holistik is known for its remarkable products and procedures--from remoras that suck out cheap Botox to eyelash extensions made of spider silk--and her new job affords her entry into a world of privilege and gives her a long-awaited sense of belonging. She becomes transfixed by Helen, the niece of Holistik's charismatic owner, and the two strike up a friendship that hazily veers into more. All the while, our narrator is plied with products that slim her thighs, smooth her skin, and lighten her hair. But beneath these creams and tinctures lies something sinister.
A piercing, darkly funny debut, Natural Beauty explores questions of consumerism, self-worth, race, and identity--and leaves readers with a shocking and unsettling truth.
Review: While Natural Beauty is not a long book, it packs in a lot of gripping topics that keep you turning the page, from society's standard of beauty, immigration, cannibalism, human cruelty, taking care of your aging parents, and capitalism. All of these ideas going in together to make this sad and scary thriller. This book is Ling Ling Huang's debut novel and I am enamored by the lyrical nature of her words. Huang herself is a Grammy-award winning violinist and spent time working in skincare retail, both of which are themes our main character experiences.
There was a part of the book that was difficult to even read about so it is just as difficult to talk about. The main character's parents are hard-working Chinese immigrants. They work as piano teachers but do not make a lot of money. When the main character gets a scholarship to a prestigious music conservatory with a stipend the whole family is so excited. Her original plan is to send most of the stipend to her family so that they can afford more to eat and not have to work so much. This changes as the main character spends more time at the conservatory and tries to buy her way into fitting in with fancy clothes and nice things. At the end of the school year there is a recital where all the families are invited to listen to the children preform. The main character gives a fantastic performance and her and her parents go back to her dorm room to celebrate. She asks them to stay late with her into the night, falling asleep with her parents stroking her hair and holding her hand. That night while driving home the parents get into a terrible car accident, putting them into a vegetative state. The main character ultimately blames herself as the cause of this misfortunate event. She calls herself selfish and it all makes me feel so sad for the three of them. They all had so much love for each other and wanted to take care of one another. It was not a selfish act to ask her parents to spend more time with her. She missed them and was having a hard time being bullied by the other kids at the conservatory. She spends so much time blaming herself for the condition her parents are in and not being able to take care of them. She didn't talk to her friends, or coworkers about her family so she was never able to get an outside perspective of her situation. The guilt that will always be stuck with the main character is something I just can't get out of my head.
Throughout the novel, the main character experiences racism in different forms. Her classmates at the conservatory were violent with her. Spilling hot water on her hands to burn her, trashing her dorm room, and stealing a photo of her with her parents were just a few of those acts. While you are reading you think maybe those kids didn't hate her because she Chinese but rather that she was poor, or younger than them, or better than all of them at the piano. There are these moments that can be called something else up until you come right up to it. Sage who is one of the owners of Holistik is having a conversation with the main character. Then she turns to our narrator and suggests she changes her name to something that is easier to pronounce. At this point I didn't even realize that we had never heard the narrator's name. At this point all that we know is that her name means Lotus in Chinese. Sage shares that there are other girls who changed their names and the narrator comes to the realization that there are other girls at Holistik that are Asian, despite blonde hair, and blue eyes, and the erasure of their natural born features. As she is taken aback so am I! When the main character walks into Holistik she notices that everyone looks just about the same, they all fall into one standard idea of beauty. None of the other girls have distinctive features that mark them as different anymore. Later in the novel where the main character comes face to face with all of the changes that have been made to her body. She sees her pale skin and blond hair and light eyes and realizes what gradual changes led to. As the reader we don't see the changes being made but we do see a difference in the way she is treated. Connor, an old friend from the conservatory apologizes to her only after she is made to look different. It shows that because of the way she looks he is now upset with the way he treated her in the past.
Overall this is an absolutely beautiful and tragic novel that you should definitely read. I especially recommend this book if you loved The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld growing up. I am excited to see what comes next for Huang and I will be reading anything else she comes up with. If you are interested in buying a copy of this book please check down below for our affiliate links. I listened to the Natural Beauty as an ALC through Libro.fm. Please feel free to share thoughts on the book or this review down below in the comment section!