Meet Barb Colby and Lily Stanton, longtime friends and heroines of Amanda Filipacchi’s sharp and witty fourth novel, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty. Barb is a costume designer and Lily is an acclaimed pianist. Despite their talents, their lives are defined more by their physical appearance than their accomplishments. In response, Barb and Lily set out to subvert society’s perceptions and expectations of their looks.
Barb Colby is in her late 20s, but she looks like an unattractive 40-year-old with bad teeth and unkempt hair and clothing. Strangers typically regard her with a mix of pity and contempt; however, Barb’s appearance is actually a skillful disguise. In reality, Barb is a stunning beauty, but instead of flaunting her appearance, she hides it because she believes it was responsible for the death of a close friend. Gabriel, a successful chef, killed himself after falling in love with her. In his suicide note he wrote that her beauty had “grown so painful for me to behold.”
Wanting to be loved for who she is and not her beauty, Barb uses her design talents to create a fat suit and a wardrobe of dowdy clothing. Whenever she goes to bars or restaurants with her friends, she makes a point of engaging men in conversation then exposing their shallow views on beauty before removing the costume to reveal her true appearance. Her resolve is tested when she meets a man who may be in love with more than her physical beauty.
Lily Stanton is also in her 20s, but her appearance is very different from Barb’s. Her friend very bluntly describes her as being “extremely ugly—the kind of ugliness that is inoperable.” Lily is deeply in love with a former co-worker named Strad, a fellow musician who’s only interested in dating beautiful women. One afternoon, Strad and Lily attend a recital and he’s so moved by the music he tells her that he could “fall in love with—and marry—any woman who could create music like that.”
Realizing that her talent may be the only way she can attract Strad, Lily resolves to compose music that’s so alluring he has no choice but to fall in love with her. She starts by composing music that will make people desire objects, such as office supplies or books, and soon develops a lucrative career composing music for companies seeking to increase sales through the suggestive power of music. The piece she composes for Strad brings success; however, complications cause her to reconsider her plan.
Barb and Lily are supported in their artistic and personal endeavors by their close friends: Georgia, a successful novelist; Penelope, an aspiring potter who survived a horrific kidnapping; and Jack, a former police officer who rescued Penelope. Collectively, the group is known as the Knights of Creation, and they meet regularly to work on various artistic and literary projects. Gabriel was also a member, and before his suicide he arranged for the group to receive a series of letters. These letters reference Lily’s hopeless crush on Strad and an unsolved murder that was allegedly committed by a member of the group. His final letters warn the group that the killer has planned to murder Strad if Lily doesn’t get over him. The group’s attempt to protect Strad leads to a strange dinner party that serves as his introduction to the Knights of Creation.
Filipacchi’s breezy narrative is pitch perfect and never gets too heavy-handed. Barb and Lily’s attempts to transcend their physical appearances result in provocative and often hilarious situations as they struggle to find love and acceptance for who they are, not how they appear. Several intriguing subplots, including one concerning a missing laptop, help flesh out the secondary characters.
The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty succeeds as both a quirky mystery and a meditation on beauty itself.
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