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Mona Awad’s latest novel shares broken beauty

Mona Awad’s poignant novel of broken beauty

SU professor Mona Awad reflects classroom lessons and the complexities of the beauty industry in her fourth novel, “Rouge.”

Mona Awad
SU College of Arts & Sciences
Author Mona Awad with two of her fiction novels, “All’s Well” and “Bunny.”

Porcelain dolls that lack the warmth of fuzzy stuffed animals. Depuffing, ice-cold skincare that numbs the warm tenderness of the skin. Mothers who are unwilling to kill spiders in their child’s bedroom.

This is the chilling life told in English professor Mona Awad’s recently published novel, “Rouge.” The book details a gothic, searingly illusive story about a woman haunted by a need for perfection. Awad shared her latest novel at the The Raymond Carver Reading Series on Wednesday, Nov. 1.

“Rouge” follows Awad’s three-novel collection of dark comic fiction. Her acclaimed book “Bunny,” which quickly became a cult favorite within the book community on TikTok, follows the story of a student who becomes entangled with a clique of rich girls. All of Awad’s novels follow a similar “twisted fate” motif that reflects her admiration for the underlying cruelty of fairy tales.

The main character is Belle, a hyper-aware, skincare-obsessed woman who returns to her California hometown after her alluring yet cruel mother dies. Upon her arrival, Belle is faced with the mystery of her mother’s death, and eventually finds herself brainwashed by a demonic beauty cult. 

Awad melds mythology and classic fairy tales with contemporary references, creating what feels like a brand-new fairy tale in itself. The writing is embellished with ripply sentences that make it sporadically humorous and maximalist in style.

Mystery thickens into a dream, and then back again, making a read that feels hazy—a task where what is read needs to be deciphered and then heavily digested. Readers are just as confused as Belle about what is reality and what isn’t. 

Awad’s writing style is an extension of a major issue prevalent for women—a disconnect between the body and soul in the pursuit of perfection. Belle loses reality after becoming absorbed by her need for beauty. Her sense of self slips to the point where her evil reflection becomes the only thing she can perceive. 

Mona Awad book signing
The NewsHouse Staff
Mona Awad signing a student’s copy of her latest novel, “Rogue,” at a book reading in Watson Hall on Wednesday.

Awad is a professor in the creative writing program at Syracuse University. One of the courses she teaches, Art of the Fairy Tale, gives students the chance to examine fairy tales by reworking them in ways that reveal new understandings of the stories they’ve known their entire lives.

“Fairy tales are a language of symbols that are potent and weird,” Awad said. “I’ve always loved how they’re mirrors for us—for where we are politically, culturally, existentially. They are incredibly useful for exploring psychological realities that are hard to articulate.”

The coursework entails critically and creatively tinkering with fairy tales, ranging from classic to contemporary. Students may be asked to retell a scene through a new perspective or write their own fairy tale. Through the process, students hone their creative side. 

“Creativity opens up a sense of what is possible, it lights up the other parts of the brain that aren’t lit up already,” Awad said. “In doing so, students find their voice.” 

To Awad, her double life as a professor and best-selling author is reciprocal in value. “The students teach me so much by sharing their perspective of the story,” she explained. “Talking about my writing with them is so useful. It prompts the idea, ‘What is really so exciting about storytelling?’” 

Storytelling is the mystification of life, the reconfiguration of what we believe to know. “Rouge” manipulates readers to question their beliefs of beauty and the extent to which perfection is really attainable.

Revealing how she chose Belle’s obsession with skincare, Awad said, “It’s such a surface-level obsession, but it signals deeper issues. It’s all about mortality: wanting to be yourself versus wanting to look like what you believe you want to look like.”

The beauty industry or us? Belle or her mother? Who is responsible for the trivialities we allow to deprive our spirits?

“There’s no real villain in ‘Rouge,’ there is ambiguity,” Awad said. “Who is the villain of Snow White? It’s unclear and I like that because it’s important. The minute you start naming the villain, it’s too easy. Too reductive.”

Mona Awad has set forth an exploration of the soul. She evokes a quest that terrifies us all — putting down our facade and surrendering our desperate performances of beauty that makes us incredulous about our natural selves. To look into the cracked mirror and know that the glass is broken, not us.