Mona Awad explores the complexity of mother-daughter relationships in new novel
Rouge is a surreal contemporary retelling of the classic fairy tale Snow White
Mona Awad is back with her signature horror-tinted and gothic storytelling in her newest novel, Rouge.
Rouge follows the story of Belle, a dress shop clerk obsessed with skin and skincare videos. After her estranged mother dies unexpectedly, she returns to Southern California for the funeral, where she's met with a mysterious woman in red who offers her a clue about her mother's sudden death. Belle is lured to the same culty spa that enthralled her mother. There, she uncovers family secrets and is further plunged into the dark side of beauty.
Your trademark is exploring darkness and surrealism. How intentional is that type of writing?
I don't think it is very intentional. It usually starts with some kind of fixation, some kind of obsession that I experience in my life. Something that I observe that sticks with me, that makes me feel maybe vulnerable, powerless, enchanted or maybe all three. In the case of skin care videos, certainly all three. Then I just decide that I'm going to pursue it in story form.
I think I learned, after my first book, that there is something about entering into the surreal, the unreal, the fantastic that allows me to be more truthful about what it is that I want to explore, the very real question or issue or fixation that I have.
- Mona Awad's Bunny is a twisted novel inspired by teen movies, fairy tales and the horror of academia
In the novel Rouge, the main character, Belle, by all accounts, is very striking, very beautiful, but feels insecure. She grew up watching her mother's pursuit of beauty. How much did that imprint on Belle herself?
I think it informed her idea of how to regard beauty as she moved forward in her life. There's this moment in the book when she learns, through her mother, that her grandmother was once a great beauty, but now her grandmother is an old woman who doesn't really take any care in her appearance. And she asks her mother, "What happened to grand-maman?" And her mother says, "Well, she threw her beauty away." And Belle, who feels very ugly in this time of her life and her youth, tells herself, "If I ever get beauty, I will never give it up. I will never throw it away."
I think that the message she is telling herself imprints very deeply and of course informs her adult life in ways that I don't even think she's aware of.
This novel investigates a very uncomfortable subject: the question of envy and that competition, that dynamic between a mother and a daughter. Why did you want to explore or dig into that?
It's something that has always fascinated me, just in watching mothers and daughters. And being a daughter and having had a mother and watching her with her own mother. I've always wanted to work with the story of Snow White because it is such a fascinating fairy tale to me. It's so interesting the way that the mother and the daughter are pitted against one another through the mirror and how we do all this work in adaptation to put some distance between the mother and the daughter.
The mother in Snow White is often a stepmother in the most popular versions. But there are a number of versions of the story that are not as popular, where she is simply her mother. Snow White tends to look at the daughter being the object of envy because she's younger, it's her time to move into the next phase of life, and it's her mother's time to move into an older phase of life, to fall away, to be less visible. This is what the fairy tale implies.
But I was interested in the inverse. I wanted to explore the potential for the daughter's envy, which I think is a very real thing. And it's especially loaded in this book because of the racial difference between the two of them as well. But it felt very important to me and it felt like a version of Snow White that I haven't really seen and so I wanted to write it.
How much does fear of aging and death drive this never ending pursuit of youth and beauty in your mind?
In my mind, it's everything. It's the shadow behind every single pursuit of beauty in this book.
We appreciate beauty because there's always that knowledge when you appreciate something beautiful, when you feel that you're inside something beautiful, that it's going to end. It cannot be beautiful forever. It will always have to change. And fairy tales are about that. The story of Snow White is a story about the changing of the seasons ultimately.
Death is the shadow side of beauty. It's the critical force in how we experience beauty in the moment.
To me, every story about beauty is also a story about death and the reason why there are so many gothic undertones to the beauty world as Belle experiences it in Rouge. Because death is the shadow side of beauty. It's the critical force in how we experience beauty in the moment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.