A woman tangles with a cultlike spa and her own obsession with physical beauty in the wake of her mother’s death in this hypnotic tour de force.
Mirabelle Nour hasn’t lived with her mother in years, but she’s built a life that nevertheless feels like both a reflection and rejection of Noelle Des Jardins. She works in a dress shop, but not the one her mother co-owns in Southern California. She goes by Mira as an adult instead of Belle, the nickname Noelle always preferred. She puts a high premium on her appearance, just like her mother, but in a way Noelle struggles to understand: prioritizing elaborate skin care routines and collagen shakes over red lipstick and sun hats. When Noelle dies in a supposed accident, Mirabelle must come home to La Jolla and confront their disconnect. In the process, she finds her way to La Maison de Méduse, the home of the titular Rouge, which offers otherworldly spa treatments to clients in pursuit of their “Most Magnificent Self,” and uncovers long-suppressed childhood memories of a man who resembled Hollywood royalty. Awad approaches the increasingly well-trod ground of sinister wellness gurus with aplomb, creating an atmosphere of creeping discomfort and surreality right from the start. There is a lot to skewer about the beauty industry at large, but Awad smartly grounds her critique in the corrosive envy and misunderstandings that spring up between biracial Mirabelle and her white mother. Mirabelle is a singularly unreliable narrator, but readers who stick with her throughout bouts of confusion and peril will be richly rewarded.
This is the stuff of fairy tales—red shoes, ballrooms, mirrors, and thorns but also sincerity, poignancy, and terror.