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The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty
'This is how I'm going to find the man of my dreams,' declares Barb, the narrator of The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, Amanda Filipacchi's kindhearted meditation on looks, friendship, creativity and love in a superficial world. Barb's method is unconventional. Cursed with a gorgeousness so extreme that she is constantly being swarmed by irritating suitors, devastated by the suicide of a friend who said her beauty was 'painful for me to behold,' she has taken to shrouding herself in a homemade fat suit accessorized with unappealing clothes, fake teeth, color-obscuring contact lenses and a frizzy gray wig. Her disguise makes her feel safe and weeds out shallow men. All men, really. She has not had sex in two years.
Her friend Lily suffers from the opposite problem. She is hideous. Not just unattractive, but lethally plain, with 'the kind of ugliness that is inoperable,' that turns mirrors into 'a loaded silence.' Desperately in love with an uninteresting, uninterested jerk named Strad, she is spiraling into despondency and close to losing herself altogether. But she has a skill that, while unusual, makes perfect sense in Filipacchi's off-kilter world: She composes music that turns specific things - junk mail or a pen - into irresistible objects of desire. (She sells it to stores, which use it to promote their products.) In a burst of inspiration, she writes a piece for herself, so that she appears beautiful to whoever is listening.
So here we have a stunning woman who makes herself hideous and an ugly one who makes herself ravishing, each hiding behind a new false self. Their struggles to reconcile their inner and outer identities and to allow others to see them as they really are give Filipacchi's book a philosophical heft and prods us to examine our own prejudices. What is our problem, that we care so much what people look like? Is there a way we can get over it, already - maybe move on to a new post-superficial era?
Happily for shallow readers who enjoy entertaining stories as much as they appreciate serious debate topics, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty wears its issues very lightly, helped along in this format by the sprightly reading voice of Christina Delaine. The plot is funny, surreal, absurd and charmingly preposterous. Some details seem to have meandered over from a Kelly Link story or from the children's books 'A Series of Unfortunate Events,' which shares an echo of a title and a similarly easy, unshockable tone. Like the orphans in those stories, Filipacchi's characters never question the weirdness around them, but meet it with a delightful, practical ingenuity.
Thus, in a scene in which Barb's insane doorman takes the guests hostage at a book party in her apartment (this is one of the weirdnesses I was talking about), Lily saves the day by composing and playing a song that makes everyone - the doorman as well as the captives - crave office supplies so urgently that they depart en masse for the nearest Staples. In another, alarmed at the knowledge that an attempt is about to be made on Strad's life at a particular time, and that an unknown member of their gang is the would-be murderer, the group invites Strad to dinner at the appointed hour and goes to increasingly extravagant lengths to keep him safe while obscuring the reason.
'They go wild for that cake,' Barb tells Strad, explaining why she has handcuffed the other guests to a rail during dessert. 'If I don't restrain them, there’ll be no cake left for you.' ('You guys are so unconventional,' Strad has already told them admiringly; he takes it all in stride.)
So they are. The group of friends are known informally as the Knights of Creation, and they meet regularly to help one another through the difficulties of trying to be a creative person and make a living at it in New York City. Much fun is had along the way, especially when Filipacchi sends up literary pretensions through the character of Georgia, a successful novelist who says she is 'nauseated' by her work-in-progress and who carries around her laptop at all times 'in hopes of getting work done.'
How the friends boost one another in their moments of discouragement and despair, how they help Barb get over her troubles and particularly how they save Lily, who at one point literally cracks from sadness, provides the heart of the story. Even their friend Penelope, who makes horrible ceramic sculptures but has an uncanny ability to piece broken things back together, finds a crucial use for what would appear to be an unnecessary skill.
Because the novel, Filipacchi's fourth, is a kind of fairy tale, things progress pleasingly. Barb's seemingly dull love interest turns out to have a wicked talent for what the writer Saki called 'romance at short notice.' 'She went to get some apples,' he blurts out winningly, by way of misleading the aforementioned insane doorman, who has come looking for Barb at the book party. Barb learns she is valued for more than her looks. Strad turns out not to be such a tool.
And it turns out there is a man for Lily after all, one who sees the loveliness beyond her appearance. Do we care that this man is strikingly handsome? Unfortunately, we do. But wouldn't it be nice if we didn't?
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