Mona Awad’s “Rouge” Turns the Mirror on Beauty and Obsession

Awad masterfully weaves black humor and seductive horror throughout her narrative, exposing the insidiously culty nature of the beauty industry and the dangers of internalizing its unforgiving scrutiny.

The cover of "Rouge" by Mona Awad. It's a black cover with a single, ominous red rose.
In Mona Awad's latest horror-thriller, the very idea of whiteness becomes a dangerous delusion.

Mona Awad, one of the rising voices in modern horror literature, published her latest novel “Rouge” today. The book — a gothic fairy tale described as “Snow White” (1937) meets “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) — follows solitary dress shop clerk Belle, who has a wicked obsession as a beauty junkie. When Belle’s estranged mother dies unexpectedly, she’s sent down a treacherous path in pursuit of youth and beauty.

Belle is defined by her fixation on her skincare videos and the beauty industry, but those obsessions are learned — when Belle shows up to sort out her mother’s affairs, she is confronted with an apartment full of beauty products and eerily, inexplicably cracked mirrors. Belle’s relationship with her mother is complicated — amongst other things, while Belle’s father was Egyptian, her mother was white. And while Belle has always considered her mother beautiful and glamorous, she has never thought the same of herself.

When speaking of the book with Shondaland, Awad said that Belle “is not entirely white, but her mother is white. She has a very conflicted relationship with her own face, and she feels alienated by her mother’s beauty … In this novel, I really wanted to do justice to where the mother also might be getting her damage. Allowing us to have the experience of being with the child but also understanding that the mother was once a child as well.”

Belle soon learns that her mother, perennially in control, had started to behave erratically before the accident that ended her life. Stakes rise when a mysterious woman dressed in red appears at her mother’s funeral, offering a tantalizing clue about her mother’s demise.

Trying on her mother’s red high-heeled shoes one evening, Belle is led to the exclusive cliffside spa La Maison de Méduse, the very same luxurious and cult-like spa that had ensnared her mother. Within its opulent walls, Belle unearths a chilling secret underlying her own and her mother's obsession with mirrors — and the depths and demons that reside on the other side of the glass. What ensues is a chilling take on the story of Demeter and Persephone, where both mother and daughter are drawn into a cultish underworld that preys on their own feminine insecurity.

Awad masterfully weaves black humor and seductive horror throughout her narrative, exposing the insidiously culty nature of the beauty industry and the dangers of internalizing its unforgiving scrutiny. "Rouge" holds up a twisted mirror to our society's preoccupation with mortality and the superficial. It delves into our collective fixation on appearances while simultaneously exploring the profound yearning that lies beneath the surface, and it pulls no punches in regard to who sets and upholds those standards of beauty. In "Rouge," Awad delivers a narrative that is as tantalizing as it is unsettling, inviting readers to contemplate the obsessions that shape our lives.

Mona Awad first handled cult narratives in her 2019 horror novel “Bunny,” which was named a Best Book of 2019 by TIME, Vogue, and the New York Public Library. Most recently, Margaret Atwood named Awad her “literary heir” in The New York Times’s T Magazine. She teaches fiction in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

“Rogue” was named a Most Anticipated Book of 2023 by Time, Vogue, The Guardian and many more outlets. It was set for a film adaptation by Fremantle and Sinestra ahead of its publication. It is available now wherever books are sold.

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