Ling Ling Huang, the Grammy-winning classical violinist, briefly worked in the wellness and clean-beauty industry, during which time she really “drank the Kool-Aid.” “I was using so many different things and found the research that goes into ingredients and products fascinating,” she says. However spending more time in that space eventually led to disillusionment. “Figuring out why I have visible pores and things that are totally normal started becoming exhausting, and that’s when I realized I should take a closer look at why I’ve just accepted all of this as work I need to do.” That awakening planted the seed that ultimately birthed Natural Beauty, her absorbing debut novel out today. It’s set in Holistik, a luxe Goop-y mecca that peddles trailblazing beauty/wellness products. A television series based on the book is currently in the works, produced by actor Constance Wu along with Creative Engine and Entertainment One, producers of Yellowjackets.
Natural Beauty starts out frothy, offering an enticing dip into how tech could beautify and perfect our bodies and faces in the near future (whale-collagen injections, plumping gloss from Japanese pit viper venom, etc.). It quickly veers into subversive horror, turning into a cautionary tale on societal themes we’re currently seeing IRL: rigid beauty standards, cultural appropriation, surveillance culture, and the unending quest for physical perfection. “So much of our cutting-edge science is being used to subjugate women’s bodies, making sure that we adhere to societal values, which is very interesting,” Huang says.
Her lived experience infuses the book; she left no facet of her life unplumbed. Apart from her beauty experience, she uses her knowledge of the classical-music world as an overlapping backdrop. “I found a lot of parallels [between beauty and] the classical-music world, like the prioritizing of aesthetic over everything else,” she says. “In the classical-music field, it’s still more permissible for women to be mediocre than it is for them to be fat,” she scathingly writes.
Huang’s childhood as a first-generation American and the resulting relationship with her parents informs a track with much pathos and gentleness. There’s the classic immigrant tussle of loyalty to family and one’s culture of origin warring with the predictable teenage desire to fit in and conform. It’s sweepingly universal yet intensely personal at once.