Over the past decade or so, more than a fair share of writers have put pen to digital paper to discuss and lampoon the growing skincare, healthcare, and wellness industries, whether that’s Barbara Bourland critiquing diet culture and fashion in I’ll Eat When I’m Dead, Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza’s Fitness Junkie, which plops one of the most toxic friendships writ into the world of health apps, or Leigh Stein’s Skin Care, which is a blackly comic satire of modern day feminism.
The latest to attempt this is The Glow by Jessie Raynor. Pitched as ‘Jane Austen on steroids’ and ‘for readers who have The Ordinary on their bathroom counters and Jane Austen on their bookshelves’, The Glow follows Jane, a disaffected PR professional buried under a mountain of medical bills, seeking a pitch to save her job. She finds it, somewhat inadvertently, in FortPath, a grungy wellness retreat run by perennially unbothered guru Cass and her husband Tom, sending the three of them on a twisted journey, all while pursing the eponymous glow that adorns the faces of anyone who attends the retreat.
It’s therefore such a shame that The Glow itself is far from glowing. The main problem at the heart of it lies within its execution – namely the fact that The Glow cannot decide whether it wants to be a sharp satirical comedy, a probing character study, or a more serious examination of the wellness industry. It even jettisons each of these elements in turn, meaning that the funny barbs and observational wit the reader loves in the first third are all but forgotten when the book switches gears. This isn’t to say that books cannot have tonal shifts, but when the book is pitched as an Austen-esque satire and only really dives into that within the first hundred or so pages, it creates a disconnect, one that The Glow struggles to re-establish.
The conceit of The Glow ultimately revolves around its triumvirate of fairly unlikely leads – Jane, the PR interloper who dreams of being put together but only as a balm on her fractured soul, is relatable in some ways but a slog to exist in the mind of, while Tom, Cass’ husband, manages slightly better due to a solid mid-way chapter exploring his background, but is an incredibly milquetoast character. Worst – or perhaps best – of all is Cass, the enigmatic leader of FortPath, a woman written so frustratingly that her exchanges with Tom or Jane are as enjoyable as one of FortPath’s sludge smoothies. In some ways Cass is the best character here, because at least her strength as a character – her deliberate obtuseness, her studied insouciance – is well-written, even as she infuriates the reader, something not always lent to The Glow‘s other key players.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t enjoyment to be found in The Glow – when Gaynor really leans into the sharp, satirical comedy, it rips plenty of laughs out of a reader, and there’s a certain energy to her writing that does allow for an engaging read. For anyone who has ever stared at the price of a serene-looking yoga retreat, or in dismay at whatever the latest celebrity skincare line claims to be able to do, they will find a lot to appreciate in The Glow‘s swipe at corporate greed and the ways that everything can be co-modified, even and including lifestyle and spiritual spheres in life.
While not as dazzling nor as sweepingly incisive as it sets out to be, The Glow still manages to be an entertaining, if muddied satire that pokes fun at the excesses and hypocrisies of the wellness industry. With a greater focus on an even tone, and a strong emphasis on the social satire elements, The Glow could have been truly great, but it still manages to find its moments to shine.
The Glow is out now from Hachette Books.