On the opening page of her absorbing essay collection, Maine author Katy Kelleher recounts a therapy session from her past, when she was severely depressed. Her therapist asked what made her get out of bed every morning. Beauty, and the prospect of seeing or holding something beautiful, was his answer.
Years later, this quest for beauty has not only fueled a career, but led to her evocatively titled book, “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things.” The book is a mash-up of history, science and politics; business, marketing and memoirs. Which is to say, Kelleher is inventing her own genre as she goes, layering research and interviews with her own first-person account. Her far-flung topics include, among others, mirrors, flowers and marble; perfumes and porcelain; shells and glass. In each instance, she makes the case that beauty always embodies an underside, whether by dint of exploitation, toxicity or degradation over time.
“There are no pure things in this world: everything that lives does harm,” Kelleher says. “Yet many of us are drawn to these pretty, depraved things. We want to possess and care for the very things that frighten us.”
Dualities of all sorts – some literal life-savers and death sentences – run throughout the book. While mirrors, for instance, allowed us to see ourselves clearly, they have also fostered our obsession with physical appearances, a culture-wide scourge. Not to mention that early mirrors were lined with toxic mercury.
The make-up industry, with its promise of enhancement, has long been engaged in risky business. A century ago, 16 women lost their eyesight by using lash dyes made from coal tar derivatives. Lead is used to be a common ingredient in makeup products. Lipsticks derived from the shells of crushed bugs are still available today.
“The beauty industry is one of the many lesser gods that make up our economy,” Kelleher says. “We strive to embody impossible ideals… When it comes to physical beauty, we want and want and want. What we want changes. But the fact of the desire – that stays the same.”
So, too, Kelleher takes on the history of marble, with its long trail of silica dust, poisoning the lungs of workers; of diamonds, with their iconic slogan (“A diamond is forever”) and their link to the slave trade; of silk, and the child labor that helped to produce it.
“In researching these objects, I came to see how skillfully we’ve papered over the crimes of the past, how thoroughly we’ve hidden evidence of our ugliness behind beautiful facades,” Kelleher says. “I began to realize how thoroughly brainwashed I’d been through years of consumerist propaganda, by the constant messaging that I needed to buy more things, to be more beautiful, to spend more money.”
Essays are an ideal format for these rich, discursive pieces, allowing detours and tangents along the way. Yet the memoir component of the book sometimes detracts from the topic at hand. Case in point, from the chapter on glass: The author reveals that, when she used to work with glass in a studio, she “always wanted to touch the molten substance, to drape it across my skin, to eat it. Viewed with my adult lens,” Kelleher says, “I can recognize these as intrusive thoughts about self-harm, inspired by my depressive brain.”
Other writerly excesses range from the preacher to the precious, as in this comment about her use of specialty mood-setting perfumes:
“My goal was not to smell clean, nor to smell healthy, nor even to smell beautiful,” Kelleher wrote. “I wanted to smell like an experience. I wanted to layer sensation onto my body, to give myself something to ponder.”
One might reasonably conclude that the book suffers an identity crisis, of sorts, toggling between the research-based and the unbridled. Still, this is a strange wonder of a book, filled with delights and provocations, eloquent, cynical and astute. At its core, this is a book about ambivalence – about grappling with the complicated nature of desire and consumption; about the decay inherent in all living (and beautiful) things. When it comes to our tangled love-hate relationship to luxury and beauty, the author nails it.
Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. She is the author of “Someday This Will Fit,” a collection of linked essays.
Bedside table: ‘Flashbulb Memories’ by Margaret Wiley and Gail Chop