Review: 'Natural Beauty' is a cautionary tale about wellness

Whether you’re drawn to the latest practices and products in beauty and wellness, or vehemently opposed, “Natural Beauty” by Ling Ling Huang is a novel that will surely hit a nerve for its timeliness and not totally unbelievable story

ByALICIA RANCILIO Associated Press

“Natural Beauty,” by Ling Ling Huang (Dutton)

From bee sting facials to fish pedicures, to Instagram filters and apps that allow us to completely edit our appearance in photos, it seems people will try almost anything to look better. It also makes the posh wellness and beauty store setting of Ling Ling Huang’s novel “Natural Beauty” within the realm of possibility and intriguing from page one.

“Natural Beauty” (a tongue-in-cheek title if there ever was one) is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, a tactic used many times over years from Daphne de Maurier’s “Rebecca” published in 1938 and even 2003’s “The Nanny Diaries” by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. This narrator is a talented pianist who puts her music aspirations aside to support her parents, who are Chinese immigrants, after an accident. She takes a job at Holistik, a “clean” beauty retailer that capitalizes on people’s desire to look as beautiful as one possibly can.

Holistik may appear perfect, with its homogenized, appealing aesthetic and its employees buy into what Holistik is selling as well, taking the idea of self-improvement to extremes. One only eats an ounce of raw meat daily. Another practices a religion called Dianaism — where the goal is to live like, you guessed it, Princess Diana. The staff is also provided with an attractive necklace that comes with an alarm reminder to take supplements, but our protagonist later learns it actually is a tracker of emotions and movement.

At first, our narrator devotes herself to blending in. She notices over time that her appearance has transformed. Her eyes are larger, her body different, her hair thicker and curled. It doesn’t take long though for the strange, intrusive practices of Holistik to be glaringly questionable and unethical, and no longer excusable as innovative. The story then shifts from satirical to horrifying and the treatments encouraged and sold by Holistik become freakish.

“Natural Beauty” has already been optioned by “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Crazy Rich Asians” star Constance Wu.

The novel would be great for book clubs, prompting discussions of beauty standards, where to draw the line and how the growing industry is unregulated.