Rouge, Mona Awad’s hypnotic new novel, follows Belle Nour, a lonely woman grieving the loss of her estranged mother and grappling with her obsession with her skin and skincare. Since she was a little girl, Belle has been drawn to mirrors and repelled by what she sees reflected in them. This fixation, one her mother shared, leads Belle to a mysterious spa, “La Maison de Méduse,” and she finds herself thrown into an underworld filled with troublingly effective beauty treatments, red champagne, and jellyfish that contain more than meets the eye. This is Awad’s fourth novel, the latest point in a line of darkly comic fiction that examines the complicated depths of womanhood through the themes of class, looks, pain and isolation. Just after the book’s release, W spoke to Awad about her own skincare obsessions, the creative process, and what inspired her to explore the dark side of the beauty industry.
What was the spark for Rouge?
I was addicted to skincare videos, just like Belle. I couldn’t stop watching them. They were just so soothing, and I was so enchanted by the prospect of easy change and instant reward. At one point, my obsession was such that I carried my laptop around wherever I was in the apartment, and they were always playing. I was buying all the recommended products, even though I couldn’t afford to. And then the novelist part of my brain started lighting up. It was like, Oh, you should look at this more closely. What’s going on here? What’s underneath this obsession with the surface?
Do you know what led you to watch the videos in the first place?
I really don’t know. I’ll try to retrace my steps. I know I was becoming just a little more interested in skincare, and I think it correlated to an overall rise in “skinfluencers” in 2019. I do feel like my phone was spying on me or something. Maybe my phone was watching me feeling vulnerable at Sephora.
And who hasn’t been vulnerable at Sephora?
Do you still watch them?
It’s so funny. I wrote this entire novel, which really did change my relationship to those videos at first. I did stop watching them. I felt like, Oh my God, I’m so over this. And then, I had to write a little piece about my addiction. And in order to write that piece, I had to revisit some of the content. I thought I would watch it with such a cynic’s eye, like, “I can't believe you ever got sucked into this.” But I got sucked right back into it.
Wow, just like that.
I think that the hold that skincare, beauty, and YouTube have over us is not a rational hold. You can understand something logically and still be completely pulled in.
One of my favorite parts of the novel is how Belle is always immediately assessing other people’s skin, and the further she goes into this world, the more people are doing the same to her. I was curious if you found yourself doing that, assessing other people’s features.
When I write, I usually try to immerse myself in the character’s way of seeing the world, so I’m sure I was. And I was probably paying more attention to my own skin than I ever had before. It's very strange to see the world that way. I pay attention to the surface; a lot of stuff is on the surface. There’s a lot there that’s very telling.
Rouge takes so many turns. Was there anything surprising about the writing process for you?
The whole final sequence of it was really surprising. I had an image, and I usually do when I write my books. I usually have the final image in my head, and I'm writing towards that, but very loosely, giving myself a lot of freedom. I don't have to get there, but I usually do. That usually is the ending.
But her journey, and where it goes, and how far it goes—I mean, there were so many things about that book that were a surprise. Just the depths of the journey and how much childhood informs our adult relationship to our faces, to our whole way of seeing ourselves. How much childhood plays a role in our adult perception surprised me–but it was amazing to explore.
There was a lot of payoff, especially in how her relationship with her mother plays out.
I’m so glad to hear that. Ultimately, I want readers to feel however they’re going to feel about the mother character. But I think that she's trying her best, and to Belle–like it can feel to any daughter when a mother is trying her best—it can sometimes feel like cruelty. Or there’s just a misunderstanding, like it’s a good intention gone wrong. That's just one of the strange things about parent-child relationships: so many misunderstandings lead to so much crazy conflict and trauma, but it happens. We’re human.
There was a lot of media directly or non-directly alluded to within the novel. Other than YouTube, what did you watch or read while writing Rouge?
Pop culture tends to play a pretty large role in my work, and fairy tales do too. I’m always thinking about fairy tales. I like them because they’re incredible ways of exploring truths we all feel and experience, like envy, like conflict between siblings, like powerlessness when you're a kid. They use magic to convey those very real, emotional, psychological states and offer a fantasy out of them.
But that fantasy, to me, really lays bare the vulnerability and the anxiety behind it. I was thinking about fairytales a lot when I was writing this book. I was reading different versions of Snow White. I rewatched the Disney movie, which totally haunted me from childhood. It’s so beautiful and creepy and problematic, but still beautiful. And, of course, I obviously watched a ton of Tom Cruise movies.
Why Tom Cruise? I have to ask.
I think he’s mesmerizing. Rouje explores the character’s childhood, and her childhood takes place in the 1980s. She is a character who is interested in cinema because her mother is interested in movies. And I was thinking, well, who is emblematic of beauty and aspiration in the ’80s? Tom Cruise. He was actually kind of an instinctive choice that I didn't understand at first, and then he really started to make sense narratively, and I got really excited. But he just kind of showed up on the page. I think he is the last movie star in a lot of ways.
Do you have a favorite fairy tale?
I mean, I really do love Snow White. I think the relationship between the mother and the mirror is so fascinating. The mirror is such a mysterious figure in that story. And that’s why in Rouge, I tried to make the mirror instrumental in pitting the mother against the daughter because the mirror is such an agent of chaos. I love The Little Mermaid, too, because I love that it’s about transformation, but also the shadow side of transformation and its cost. Which I think is something that fairytale handles so well, that careful-what-you-wish-for story.
What’s your first memory of beauty and routine?
Oh my gosh, I;m just seeing a line of my grandmother’s nail polish bottles, all these Wet n Wilds along her bathroom counter. And all of her lipsticks. She had so many lipsticks, also in a long line along her bathroom. It’s funny that I don’t think of my mother, and that’s because she didn't really like skincare or makeup. She was more like, throw some water on your face and you’re done. I think about my father, actually. My father used the multi-step Clinique routine when I was a kid. I remember all the different numbered bottles and the Clinique bar of soap. He was so fastidious about it and so ritualistic.
And what’s your own routine like?
I mean, it’s gone through so many different phases in the writing of this book. It was so Byzantine for a while. When I started writing, I was using all kinds of serums, and I was using acid. I did masks, of course. Now, it's much simpler. I use an acid once or twice a week. The Biologique Recherche, I use that. I do love it. And I use retinol, and I use sunscreen, and I use a moisturizer at night. I do not wash my face in the morning. I just use sunscreen. So it’s much simpler than it was. But I am very vulnerable to the magic, and I do believe. Oh, and I love that SK-II Essence. That's good stuff. That's the good stuff, for sure.
Are there any fictional routines that are iconic to you?
Oh, American Psycho, Patrick Bateman's extended morning routine. No question at all. I mean, that is an iconic routine. And I was definitely thinking about it when I wrote Rouge because that novel is still very important to me. It's so intense in so many ways. I don’t know if I could ever read it again. It’s such an incredible commitment to a consciousness, a very particular consciousness, and it allows you no escape. And as a reader, that was an incredible experience to have. I will never forget that morning routine of Patrick Bateman’s. Tom Cruise is also in that book.
I was struck by how plainly the book talks about the beauty industry’s obsession with whiteness and its history of colorism.
It felt important to address, because this book, I mean, ultimately it's a mother-daughter story. It's a story about fixations with the surface being perhaps a little dangerous. But it is also a critique of the beauty industry too. And this feels like a very important thing to talk about: the ageism, the colorism, and the euphemisms that mask that deep ageism and colorism in the industry. I mean, they can use different words; they can use “brightening.” They can say “glow,” but we know what is underneath that. And I think that’s a problem. Belle is so vulnerable to it. It completely enchants her because she has a conflicted relationship with her skin. And so it just felt important to inhabit that particular body in thinking about beauty's power and the perils of the beauty industry,
It was very effective how the characters at the spa didn’t just look younger, but you described them as looking “thirteen or fourteen.”
It’s completely unattainable. I mean, that's the thing. It’s completely absurd. You will never get there. And do you even want to? But it has to be utterly unattainable so that we will forever reach for it.
One last question: Why jellyfish?
Well, it turns out jellyfish are the only immortal creatures, which I did not know when I settled on jellyfish. I just think they’re really beautiful and kind of creepy. I did know that I wanted to work a lot with water because mirrors are so important in this book, and water is, of course, the first mirror. It's the first reflective surface. So it would make sense, right? The depths beneath the surface of the water, the creatures beneath. So jellyfish felt great because they’re so slippery, and strange, and so primordial. But they are also immortal, just like Tom Cruise.