Surface tensions

Elisa Segrave faces the ugly truth about cosmetic surgery; Skin by Joanna Briscoe, Phoenix House, pounds 16.99

You will certainly never want a face-lift after reading this novel. Its heroine Adele Meier, a former beauty and a best-selling author who invented a subversive character called Loulou, finds herself in middle- age, living alone in Paris. She is no longer with Laurence, her great love, whom she met in New York as a young woman. Once, Laurence left his wife and baby for her. Now he has returned to England and married a conventional English wife.

Joanna Briscoe describes in graphic detail the facial operations Adele embarks on in Paris in order to stave off the signs of approaching age: "the surgeon removed a string of fat from the patient's eyelid. This was shining yellow and lumpy in texture" while "the patient's cheek... flopped over her ear, unattached, rooted only at the mouth, nose and eyes". In between each operation and its painful after-effects, Adele's past unfolds. Her Austrian parents emigrated to Virginia with 14-year-old Adele, her older sister Kati and her two brothers John and Karli. Her father abandoned them for a local woman while Adele was still a teenager. A few years later her mother died of a heart attack. Adele went north, first to New Jersey, then to New York.

Adele's narcissism in middle age makes her seem unsympathetic. We do not learn about her girlhood until later. I am not sure how far Briscoe intended to create such an immediately unlikeable character. Adele's cold- blooded seductions of two young men in Paris, undertaken mainly to convince herself that she still has sexual power, are described with skilful eroticism. I must admit to envy - both of Briscoe for her writing and of Adele herself for nailing two young men at her age. Nonetheless, this lack of emotion makes these scenes ultimately chilling. Indeed, apart from her love for her step-daughter, Melina (hospitalised in England with anorexia), Adele often seems so self-absorbed that I found it difficult to believe that she had written a bestselling book with universal appeal.

"Loulou has very exotic sex and manipulates men and says what most women only dare to think in their secret minds," Adele says, explaining her book's success to an audience of fans in Paris. But although she has won acclaim for inventing a contemporary feminist idol, Adele knows that she has always relied heavily on male admiration. "I always needed my Holy Grail, the male with his hormones and his gifts to me", she admits to herself. And yet, long ago in New York, during her heady period as a young beauty, she had already half realised the flip side of sexual magnetism. "I was exalted by men as I was injured by men. It's commonplace...men make you feel so terrible, so high, you are their circus animal, pretty pelt and leash".

This accomplished, intelligent novel throws up interesting questions. Are beautiful women different? Is ageing actually worse for them, because they are accustomed to depend on their looks? Do very beautiful women often become narcissistic when young?

In one poignant moment, while recovering from facial surgery, Adele remembers the older women she used to see on the Upper East Side where - in her twenties, at the height of her attractiveness - she worked as personal secretary to a German banker's wife. She never gave these women and their face-lifts more than a passing thought but now, alone in Paris, she recalls the "shark grins of effort stretching their features" and their eyes, "widened with simulated youth and yet precisely blank, a dull dead glitter".

Worrying, too late, about the cycle of operations she has inflicted on herself, she realises that she is no different from them. "The surgical interventions create a homogenised tribe: women who resemble each other, sisters under the skin."

Skin has some beautiful passages, in particular when Adele tells how she and Laurence first fell in love. I also liked the descriptions of her youth in New York, where, after a stint in the Martha Washington women's hostel and some unsatisfactory flat-shares, she settles with two girlfriends in "a brownstone in the dusty and blossomed upper reaches of Greenwich Village, on West 13th Street, where the white church struck bells and Sixth Avenue was a clutter of shoe repairers and discount shops".

There are also many memorable vignettes and pithy remarks about men, as when Laurence first makes love to her: "He was different, in the way that men are when they are erect and as vulnerable as boys with sticks, and sinewed and Biblical and alarming".

But I suspect that Skin will be remembered most for its powerful evocation of panic and loneliness: of that disturbing moment when every woman is forced to realise, for the first time, that she too will grow old.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable