‘Rouge’: New novel set in La Jolla explores the gothic side of the beauty industry

"Rouge" by Mona Awad is set in La Jolla.
(Provided by Mona Awad)

Author Mona Awad wrote the story here and views it as the perfect setting for a book about beauty and darkness.


To author Mona Awad, La Jolla is a bright gem of a location: a sunny and sparkling respite from her home in Boston.

She also sees it as a perfect setting for darkness, as explored in her fourth book, “Rouge,” to be released Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Awad also teaches creative writing and literature courses in Syracuse, N.Y. Writer Margaret Atwood recently named Awad her “literary heir apparent.”

“Rouge” is the story of a dress shop clerk who learns her mother has died, and she returns to La Jolla, where she “ends up getting sucked down this rabbit hole of this really sinister beauty cult,” Awad said.

The novel falls into the genre of the surreal, with elements of horror and fairy tales that had Awad “playing with the fantastic,” she said.

Mona Awad lives in Boston but does most of her writing in La Jolla.
(Angela Sterling)

Not all of her books are in the same genre, but Awad finds the surreal a way to strengthen the real.

“Sometimes the fantasies that we have, the desires that we have … reveal things we don’t want revealed,” she said. “There’s something really powerful about where we are in the real world.”

If fantasy becomes reality, “is it all you hoped it would be? Is there a cost? Is there a shadow side that you’re not anticipating?” Awad said.

“Rouge” is set in La Jolla because “this is where I write,” Awad said.

She’s been coming here since 2018 and staying in the same short-term rental for weeks at a time. She has written or edited most of her books here.

La Jolla is “kind of perfect,” she said. “It overlooks the water and it’s low-key.”

Awad drafted “Rouge” in five weeks in La Jolla. “It was really such an exhilarating experience to write it and to write it here, where it’s set,” she said.

The story came to her on one of her routine walks along The Cove. The journey into a beauty cult stemmed from Awad’s own hyper-focus on skin care.

“I got really addicted to it,” she said, and would watch endless YouTube videos about skin care and buy the products.

While exploring the industry, Awad began “seeing a lot of horror in the beauty world,” she said, with treatments involving things such as LED face masks and microneedling. “I think it’s very easy for the beauty world to tip into the gothic. ... It’s terrifying.”

The pursuit of youth and beauty is inherently gothic, attached “to an anxiety about dying,” she said. “We don’t want to see that on our face, that we’re moving toward that.”

Awad also explored how people begin to value qualities like beauty in childhood. She said “Rouge” is a bit of a retelling of “Snow White,” with a focus on how fairy tales “teach us that what’s beautiful is the thing to prize.”

La Jolla is central to the story, with Awad imagining what “lavish, gothic, creepy” activity might be hidden in the stunning homes overlooking the ocean.

She views the sea itself as the source of La Jolla’s dark side.

“The ocean is fundamentally kind of dreadful,” she said. “It’s the abyss. … I can’t imagine [‘Rouge’] set in another place.”

The juxtaposition of La Jolla’s sparkling beauty with dark, macabre activity mirrors the tension Awad sees in the pursuit of skin care.

“That’s an obsession with the surface,” she said. “But what’s underneath that is something much darker and deeper.”

Writing “Rouge” was “one of the most incredible writing experiences I’ve ever had,” Awad said. “And I think part of the reason why is [that] I was here and I was writing about here.”

To purchase “Rouge,” visit bit.ly/AwadRouge.

Local appearance

Mona Awad will discuss and sign “Rouge” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, at Warwick’s bookstore, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla.

The event is free, or $28 for a reserved seat and book copy. For more information, visit warwicks.com/event/awad-2023. ◆