In a debut novel as radiant as it is caustic, a former influencer confronts her past—and takes inventory of the damages that underpin the surface-glamour of social media.
At 19, she was an Instagram celebrity. Now, at 35, she works behind the cosmetic counter at the “black and white store,” peddling anti-aging products to women seeking physical and spiritual transformation. She too is seeking rebirth. She’s about to undergo the high-risk, elective surgery Aesthetica™, a procedure that will reverse all her past plastic surgery procedures, returning her, she hopes, to a truer self. Provided she survives the knife.
But on the eve of the surgery, her traumatic past resurfaces when she is asked to participate in the public takedown of her former manager/boyfriend, who has rebranded himself as a paragon of “woke” masculinity in the post-#MeToo world. With the hours ticking down to her surgery, she must confront the ugly truth about her experiences on and off the Instagram grid.
Propulsive, dark, and moving, Aesthetica is a Veronica for the age of “Instagram face,” delivering a fresh, nuanced examination of feminism, #MeToo, and mother-daughter relationships, all while confronting our collective addiction to followers, filters, and faux realities.
Allie Rowbottom is the author of the memoir Jell-O Girls, a New York Times Editors’ Choice Selection, Amazon Best Book of the Month, Indie Next Pick, and Real Simple Best Book of the year. Allie’s essays and short fiction can be found in Vanity Fair, Salon, Lit Hub, No Tokens, NY Tyrant, The Drunken Canal, Alta Journal, Bitch, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the writer Jon Lindsey.
Praise for Aesthetica
An NPR Best Book of 2022
“In a book about looks, the language is tasked with turning words into images. Rowbottom’s buzzy and exacting vocabulary evokes a picture already resting in our minds and on our newsfeeds . . . Aesthetica asks whether someone devoted to beauty can decide to know who they are, rather than simply change it. Anna is stuck between ways of seeing: viewing one path as necessary and another as indulgence, past and future, eternal and ephemeral. No matter which we choose, we somehow always end up right back where we started, still believing we can somehow make ourselves over.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“This debut novel follows a 35-year-old woman undergoing a surgery to reverse the plastic surgeries she underwent while she was a teenage Instagram influencer living under the thrall of an abusive manager and lover. Allie Rowbottom’s book is as dark as it sounds, but it’s also vital, written with real anger and compassion. One of the best American novels so far about social media, it’s a chilling look at the state of today’s world—both real and virtual, although those boundaries keep blurring.”
“Aesthetica . . . fashions the life of one IG-famous hopeful into a study of our eternal anxieties about youth and desire and self-commodification versus self-empowerment, all against a background of reply-guys comments, brand-friendly boob jobs, and cannabis sponsorship deals.”
“An edgy, whip-smart page-turner that does in fact keep you off your phone.”
“Indispensable . . . The novel is uncanny in its ability to zoom in and lay bare the effects social media has on our perception of youth, beauty, and relevance, but it also raises questions about whether using your body as currency can ever be a form of self-empowerment, the cost of excessive self-promotion, patriarchal power dynamics, and whether the staggering amount of time and money spent to become visually “perfect” is ever really worth it.”
“A novel for anyone who exists on the internet and has wrestled with the dissonance between the self they project online and the body they inhabit in real life. It’s a dark and probing account of fame and agency and the ever-watchful gaze that creates the culture we live within.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“In this Los Angeles Gothic narrative set in the near future, an aging former influencer named Anna undergoes a cosmetic procedure that promises to reverse the many plastic surgeries she underwent seeking internet celebrity . . . As Anna reflects on the events that have brought her to this moment, readers chart her transformation from insecure teenager to Instagram star under the tutelage of Jake, whose money and power Anna craves—determined to rise above her humble upbringing by an ill single mother whose warnings about the perils of social media register too late.”
—Poets & Writers
“[A] twisted deep dive into the sordid nature of social media . . . Aesthetica is a brutal novel that forces you to look in the mirror before breaking it and using the shards to cut you open.”
“Social media having a dark side is by no means a new concept. Aesthetica takes the idea a step further by imagining what comes after where we are now. Rowbottom explores the future of our relationship with social media with raw honesty, nuance, and compassion.”
“Rowbottom is unafraid to portray the experience of living in accordance with an ever-evolving beauty standard as a perilous one, alienating and reliant on great sacrifice and pain . . . One of Aesthetica’s best, most genuinely thrilling qualities is its depiction of the intellectual and ethical whiplash that results from the collision of competing schools of feminism and ever-evolving bodily trends, leaving those who hope to balance sexiness and correct politics unmoored and dizzy.”
“A conspicuous look at the toxicity of social media culture and the idea of perfection, Rowbottom deftly explores topics of mother-daughter relationships, exploitation, and feminism in this disturbing and raw debut.”
“Told in a split narrative alternating between the chaotic moments preceding Anna’s surgery and her tumultuous coming-of-age as an Instagram model, Aesthetica examines the lengths we go to in order to love ourselves. An exploration of womanhood and aging under the influence of social media and late-stage capitalism, the novel examines how internet culture impacts bodily agency and gender. At its core, Aesthetica is about the desire to be seen as we want to see ourselves.”
“Compelling . . . Rowbottom’s expressive and searching style is apt to capture both the bottomless emptiness and dark allure of image-centric internet life.”
“The book resists tired takeaways about our digital lives . . . Aesthetica is packed with evocative L.A. references, like Black Dahlia and El Coyote, along with more up-to-date ones, like weed spon-con and selfie walls.”
“The ‘Instagram Novel’ is tricky—too didactic, and you seem like a Luddite, too familiar, and you’re rehashing previous territory. Too few seem like they have any other message behind ‘Instagram is bad!’ but when a rare gem offers something new, it can be explosive.”
“Rowbottom’s writing is not some cliché-ridden, girl-power critique of the global beauty industry . . . Aesthetica is concerned with showing you who the characters are, how they rub against each other, how their lives and purposes bleed into each other and create mess. It is interested in that mess and contradiction.”
“[A] searing and brilliant debut novel which delves into the horrifying and all too real world of influencer culture.”
“Ruthless from start to finish—sharply interrogating Instagram culture, influencers, the world of eating disorders and much more in this new novel . . . Rowbottom doesn’t hold back: name dropping, calling out celebrities, and conceptualizing a world which feels all too familiar. Aesthetica is full of dark cynicism, but also bright light—it shines on the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, the way we handle (or avoid) grief, and the great lengths we will go to feel beautiful, even when it means losing ourselves along the way. Aesthetica is a memorable novel for feminists and skeptics alike, and it holds a mirror up to our culture in the way that the best books do.
—The Masters Review
“With narratives centered around virtual worlds, and our relationships to them, a reactive tone of condescension and distaste has quickly become a modern literary trope; it’s easier to identify what’s problematic in our reality than it is to allow for nuance. But with Aesthetica, Rowbottom captures the complexities of the human relationship to social media, and the identities we yearn to create within it . . . Rowbottom offers a distinctly human picture of the self-surveillance and collective addiction that have defined contemporary coming-of-age stories—one that is both terrifying and hopeful at once.”
“You should read this book if you like: Contemporary fiction, debut novels, social critique, recovering Instagram influencers, the insidious evil of the social media era.”
“A beautiful, but also heartbreaking, portrayal of lost friendships and mother/daughter relationships.”
“A gothic twist on the contemporary woman's life. Immersive, wicked, and so much fun. Allie Rowbottom is the only writer that should be writing on this era of Instagram and Influencers.”
—Marlowe Granados, author of Happy Hour
“In her dark, moving, fascinating, and healing first novel, Allie Rowbottom compassionately and lucidly examines one of the more painful, disturbing, stranger, and newest subcultures that our misogynist dominator society has produced.”
—Tao Lin, author of Leave Society
“Much will be made of how perfectly Aesthetica captures influencer culture, but the genius of this novel is how far it extends past our current moment. In biting yet empathetic prose, Allie Rowbottom explores the ethos of American image making—from the early aughts, to the Instagram face era, and even trend forecasting what's to come. She gives it to you filter-free, making the book entirely unputdownable.”
—Samantha Leach, Bustle's Entertainment Editor-at-Large
“Nobody investigates the relationship between surface and self like Allie Rowbottom. Full of biting observations and stunningly beautiful prose, Aesthetica is poetic and singular—an unforgettable novel about power and loneliness, mothers and daughters, self-destruction and self-preservation.”
—Kimberly King Parsons, author of the National Book Award–longlisted Black Light
“Aesthetica is a pitch-perfect contemporary horror story and cautionary tale. Brutal and enlightening, with prose that crackles and radiates with heat, Rowbottom holds a fun house mirror not only to the characters within, but to a patriarchal America that equates body to commodity. Ultimately, Aesthetica is hopeful, reminding us of our very humanness, of our need to love and nurture and revere; Rowbottom tells us it's not too late to turn it all around, begin again. I've never read anything like it.”
—T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
"Propulsive, poetic, and addictive as hell, Aesthetica is a wholly original look not only into the world of social media influencers, but into the lives beyond the squares that are devastatingly rich in heart, depth, and ultimately, redemption. Allie Rowbottom writes like a wizard and I kept asking myself, how is she doing it? By the end, I knew only this: No one could write this book without staring down the world, really seeing it, all of it, the ugly and the strange, the blinding and gorgeous bits, and not once looking away. This book doesn't look away. It doesn't flinch. I'll remember it forever."
—Chelsea Bieker, author of Godshot and Heartbroke
"Allie's writing is a light to follow in the dark, illuminating those human realities we often wish would stay hidden, but deep down, if we're open enough, are grateful to have seen all the same. I'm thrilled she wrote this story of discovery and self in the time of social media."
—Dantiel W. Moniz, author of Milk Blood Heat
"Aesthetica is the best book about influencers I’ve ever read and the only book about the internet that doesn’t make the author sound like a thousand-year-old vampire."
“Allie Rowbottom is a ruthless, incisive, and painfully human chronicler of how modern technology mediates every interaction, and throws up invisible walls to connection, amplifying and dulling every desire, and every harm. Never have I read a book like hers, that captures so perfectly the feeling that our phones have become an extra limb, and tracks their emotional consequences so acutely through such a universal story. This novel is a feminist communique written on the edge of almost-oblivion—in emojis, stitches, and pills—for every woman who's tried to save another, wishing she could force love into her. It's written like a psychological thriller. My heart was beating in my throat on every page.”
—Sarah Gerard, author of True Love
"Allie Rowbottom's Aesthetica is a sharp and exhilarating portrait of girlhood through the distorted prism of Los Angeles and influencer culture. Her writing is alive and urgent; bravely exploring the tormented self-surveillance and unrelenting scrutiny that girls, aching to be seen, so readily subject themselves to. She deftly captures the emotional whiplash of toggling between a public and a private self, when neither feel entirely yours. Reading Aesthetica was like an incantation: each wry observation conjured visceral memories of my own girlhood I’d long since locked away: like the smell of Acqua di Gio, spray tans, calorie-counting frozen Lean Cuisines and endless Diet Coke. Like life itself, moments of horror are cut with unexpected humor and tenderness. Rowbottom accomplishes the great magic trick of powerful fiction: she reveals those secret parts of ourselves we’d long buried or forgotten that wait for us, aching to be seen."
—Nada Alic, author of Bad Thoughts
“Rowbottom’s debut novel takes a sharp look at social media, the post-#MeToo era, and what the future could hold for a generation of young women.”
“This debut offers a nuanced examination of feminism in the age of Instagram.”
“Rowbottom delivers a complex and deeply engaging portrayal of a woman looking back on her career as an Instagram model. The narrative fluidly alternates between the near future, when Anna is in her mid-30s, and her rise to influencer status in 2017 at 19 . . . it all builds to a scorching commentary on society’s blindness toward female pain. Fans of Mary Gaitskill’s work and Black Mirror will flock to this pitch-perfect novel.”
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“Rowbottom’s focus on second chances, true love, and self-awareness rings true as she calls out the image making and image makers of social media, and readers of a broad range of contemporary fiction will enjoy. Highly recommended.”
“Rowbottom's tale offers a piercing look at the reality behind the glamorous life Instagram influencers allegedly lead.”
“An introspective novel wherein fame is fleeting and power must come from within.”
“A challenging, compassionate novel about the aftermath of exploitation and packaged youth . . . While structurally the novel is conventional, tracking a naïve young woman’s entrapment in a sordid world and her reawakening as an adult, Rowbottom’s specificity about one moment in internet culture and the contradictory ideologies about autonomy and desire young women must parse make it worthwhile reading.”
Praise for Allie Rowbottom
"A book that alternately surprises and mesmerizes . . . Jell-O Girls is dark and astringent, a cutting rebuke to its delicate, candy-colored namesake . . . Rowbottom has the literary skills and the analytical cunning to pull it off . . . Gorgeous."
―The New York Times
"With this fascinating cultural history of an iconic dessert and its creators, Rowbottom has found the courage to break the mold."
"A fascinating feminist exploration . . . A strange, sensitive account of trauma, motherhood, and America."
"From these beginnings, Allie Rowbottom has molded this generous book of intuition, connection, and grace. This is a work of wild insights and deep music."
―Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
"Allie Rowbottom's memoir is an unflinching exploration of the inheritance and curse behind an American icon. Graceful and genuine, Jell-O Girls is what happens when a damn good story meets an even better writer."
―Mat Johnson, author of Pym and Loving Day
"Allie Rowbotton is a talent not to be overlooked! I love this book with all my heart. I couldn't put down this strangely sparkling cultural and family history."
―Porochista Khakpour, author of Sick