When I was twenty-one, I became friends with a group of models living in London and for a while we ran wild together, night after night in the city. The champagne was endless, the venues exclusive, and the stories they told me were spectacular.
They were stories of excessive fees paid for lunch dates and whole lives of luxury funded in secret by benevolent billionaires. I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d never read a novel about it before, this glamorous and complex world in which the lines were blurred and the limits extinguished.
I was stunned by the currencies at play, all the privilege afforded by looking a certain way and knowing the right people, or where to find them at least. The power dynamics of these interactions intrigued me. I planned to write my own novel and I dreamt up characters and scenarios inspired by what I’d seen and heard.
I knew the story would be exciting not just because it would illuminate a secretive world but because it would be a story of now, of the internet, of feminism, of capitalism, of sexual agency, all coming together in a way that wouldn’t have been possible at any other time. And then there was the appeal of dissecting the “sugaring” world, one of young, attractive sugar babies and older, monied sugar daddies.
The anthropologist in me was fascinated with the prospect of chronicling this world with all its own customs, terms and expectations. I collated my journals and my scrawled imaginings and committed to finishing a first draft of the novel that would become my debut, Sugar, Baby.
This is a reading list with a common theme: women who paint and polish their beauty into a gleaming currency of its own. These women are aware of the way the world works and use their looks to their advantage in a patriarchal system. It’s true across the board that beauty opens doors for these women and provides opportunities to improve their lives. They garner varied results, sometimes finding that the life they earn with their beauty is not necessarily the one they really want, and that playing a role and dressing in a costume has lasting consequences that will ripple through their lives forever.
I have enjoyed these books immensely. They explore some fascinating themes, ones I also touch on in Sugar, Baby, among them: obsession with physical perfection, extreme beauty standards, transactional relationships with men and improving one’s status in society by employing strategic relationships with people in power.
One thing I especially like about these books is the way they treat the inner world of the women with respect and curiosity. There is no sense of a judgmental authorial voice hanging overhead. These women are complex with their own desires, dreams and ambitions. Their lives take twists and turns along which they discover both the full gleaming extent and the stark wanting scarcity of what beauty can buy you.
Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls
A classic for a reason. Set across the fifties and sixties, beautiful and sophisticated Anne Welles, moves to New York to work as a secretary at a dramatic agency. She befriends scrappy up-and-comer with enormous talent Neely O’Hara and ravishing beauty with a complicated past Jennifer North, and the three women navigate career, men and friendship together in the entertainment business and beyond.
This is a compulsively readable book with brilliantly crafted dialogue and prose that interrogates many complex themes with originality. For me, many of the character’s discoveries about themselves rang with truth and recognizability. It made me laugh, it made me cry: it’s a favorite for all time.
Emma Cline, The Guest
On the East End of Long Island, Alex is living with the extraordinarily wealthy Simon, swimming in his pool and selecting her outfits from a brand new designer wardrobe. Everything’s going well until she makes a dreadful mistake at a dinner party one night and then suddenly everything is in jeopardy. We follow Alex as she does her very best to cling onto her new life. We know something terrible has happened, that Alex is something of a kleptomaniac and she’s hiding from someone, we know that she has escorted in the past but not much else about her.
Personally, I love a heroine with dubious morals and explorations of the experiences of modern sex-workers that take the reader to unexpected places. This novel contains sharp and funny observations about the American upper classes as the protagonist, Alex, wanders through their world of luxury. It shows the fragile and uncertain ground that Alex’s relationship with Simon is built on. The Guest is a novel of astonishing details and beautiful prose, taut with such thrilling tension throughout that it makes the controversial ending worth it.
Frances Cha, If I Had Your Face
I’ve only just started this one but I’m enjoying every word so far. If I Had Your Face is set in contemporary Seoul. It’s a story about four young women, Kauri, Milo, Ara, and Wonna, who live in the same apartment building. These women navigate their lives against a backdrop of extreme standards of beauty, mostly achieved through dangerous surgeries, and a society where the most attractive women can make a lot of money in “room salons” catering to wealthy men.
It’s a society where beauty explicitly equals privilege. It’s a story about beauty, wealth, power and class but also female strength in a patriarchal world and the importance of friendship.
Mona Awad, Rouge
With gorgeous, whimsical imagery and rhapsodic language, this is a modern fairy-tale with teeth. A lonely dress shop clerk, Mirabelle, has grown up in awe of her mother’s beauty, believing herself to be an inferior imitation. Her mother easily attracted attention, was admired for her good looks and maintained her appearance with a strict routine.
Upon her mother’s death she discovers that her mother’s obsession with beauty was “culty” in more than one sense of the word: she had gone “the way of the roses.”
Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha
Another much-loved and frequently read favorite of mine. A detailed and gorgeously painted work of historical fiction that recounts the life story of Nitta Sayuri, who is sold by her family from a poor fishing village to a Geisha House in Kyoto where she learns the intricate customs of the competitive world of the Geishas, going on to become the most celebrated of them all. Sayuri experiences loss, friendship, fear, and love along her transformative journey which spans World War II.
The poignant images of the novel leave a mark on the reader as Sayuri learns the trade of feminine allure, of dance and music, of eroticism and ultimately how to hide her true feelings beneath the Geisha mask in order to become successful, though through it all, hope remains. A must-read!
Sugar, Baby by Celine Saintclare is available via Bloomsbury.