a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Amanda Filipacchi, author
Where: W. W. Norton & Co.
When: Published February 2016 (paperback – which is the cover shown here)
Why Read: French-American novelist Amanda Filipacchi is a satirist whose previous works include Love Creeps, Vapor, and Nude Men. She’s also an essayist who’s written articles including “The Looks You’re Born with and the Looks You’re Given” for The New Yorker (which explains the subject for this particular book) and “How to Pose Like a Man” (which explains the too-glossy-glam hardback cover of this title – and its stern author photo). She’s a sharp, funny, feminist who shamed Wikipedia (and its “editors”) for relegating the best American Women Novelists to the American Women Novelists sublist of the Best American Novelists. (Naturally, social media attacked her for stating the obvious sexism.)
Filipacchi’s The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty centers on the struggles with physical attractiveness of a group of artistic friends in New York City. The two most talented of the group, Barb and Lily, both fear that their looks will prevent them from finding love. The physical differences between them, however, are stark: Barb is a blonde bombshell, Oscar-nominated costume designer whose friend Gabriel killed himself for unrequited love of her; while Lily, a brilliant composer, bluntly and often described as “ugly” with close-set eyes, is hopelessly in love with the self-obsessed, shallow Strad. When Barb begins to receive postdated letters from Gabriel declaring the presence of a killer in their group – whose next target is Strad – the group’s devotion to Lily’s happiness is outlandish, hilarious, and warmly inspiring. What starts as a lighthearted ode to the vitality of friendship spirals into a farcical thriller as the dedicated friends go to extreme lengths to both stop and save the would-be murderer from him or herself.
As this dreamy, nightmarish mystery ensues, Filipacchi weaves in delightful elements of magical realism (Lily can compose music that utterly compels consumers to buy books or office supplies) while deftly exploring society’s debilitating fixation with and expectation for beauty. In a desperate hope to find a man willing to look past the physical, Barb ugliness herself and, in one of the novel’s funniest and most stringent scenes, “tests” men at bars, “stealing” their opportunities to “make a good impression;” while Lily, in a running sequence of heartbreaking surrealism, attempts to beautify herself with her music. The novel’s biggest – and timeliest – question is: Is it better to be loved primarily for a “worthless reason” than never loved at all? Underneath Filipacchi’s buoyantly over-the-top, preposterous plot twists and fanciful character developments, is a vicious yet sensitive detailing of the intelligent, creative woman’s struggle to be loved and appreciated for who she is – not what she looks like. (Accused of shallowness, Strad responds: “A man has to be physically attracted to a woman. If he can’t get it up for her, what is he supposed to do, shove it in with a stick?”) The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty‘s plot may be crazily contrived, but its notions of (the heavy burden of) beauty and societal expectations is spot-on, zany satire – and one of the best, quickest beach reads of this summer.