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The Scarlet & Black

“The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty”

Column by Susanne Bushman
bushmans@grinnell.edu

Susanne Bushman - Sofi Mendez

Comedy, magical realism and social commentary come together in force in Amanda Filipacchi’s novel “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty.” Filipacchi’s story has the feeling of a modern fairytale with its outlandish characters and farcical plot.

As the title would suggest, physical beauty is at the center of the story which follows Barb, an incredibly beautiful woman who has been disguising herself as extremely ugly for two years. Barb is a costume designer, which assists in her transformation, allowing her to construct a fat suit, fake teeth, a wig and colored contacts to completely obscure her appearance. The transformation is catalyzed by the suicide of her best friend, who stated in his suicide note that it was her beauty and his unrequited love for her that caused his death. Her new appearance also serves to deter the annoying string of obsessive suitors who don’t love her for her personality, but her beauty. “This is how I’m going to find the man of my dreams,” Barb claims.

Barb’s best friend Lily has the opposite problem. While she is an incredibly talented pianist and composer, she is extremely plain. When she falls in love with the superficial musician Strad, her appearance stands in the way of him reciprocating her feelings. Just as she’s becoming depressed about her appearance, she discovers an incredible talent, however — the magical ability to compose music that convinces people to do things or change how they see objects. She starts simple — music that convinces people to buy more books at a bookstore —and moves on to writing a song that makes her appear beautiful.

Barb and Lily are also surrounded by an ensemble of equally quirky characters who band together when a surprising murder plot pops up in the middle of the book with a mysterious threat to Strad’s life. Things take a turn for the strange and hilarious as they try to protect Strad without letting him know that his life is in danger. The friends know that the threat comes from within the group but don’t know from whom. The danger culminates in a laugh out loud funny dinner party, where social norms are thrown to the wayside to protect Strad’s life.

It’s this humor that makes the novel enjoyable for any reader while still reflecting on important issues surrounding respectability politics, rape culture and, of course, beauty. Filipacchi makes our own world strange to us by incorporating magical realism and outlandish occurrences, but they all serve to invoke mediations on her central theme of how our appearance affects our lives.

The subject seems all too real to the reader, and to the author as well, whose mother was a famous supermodel in the 60s. She’s written about appearance in an essay in The New Yorker entitled “The Looks You’re Born With and the Looks You’re Given,” and in many ways this book feels like a fictionalization of the ideas in the essay.

Whether you care about your appearance or not, “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” will make you laugh and think about the way that our looks affect us, whether we want them to or not.

—Editor’s Note: Susanne Bushman is a Copy Editor of the S&B.

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