Writers searching for a subject ripe with juicy satirical possibilities will find a ready friend in plastic surgery. It’s a fleshy-flashy-multibillion-dollar industry which profits off, depending upon whom you ask, either mankind’s lofty desire for perfection or its vainest impulses. And just like every field, it seems, which stirs in sensitive people a sense of dread, it’s advancing at breakneck speed.
In her genre-bending debut novel Pilgrims 2.0, Lindsey Harding traverses the sensitive topic with the confident, observant voice of a seasoned pro. Readers follow four female passengers and the male staff of PILGRIM, a cruise ship in the near future where, rather than snorkeling and zip lining, guests sign up for “excursions” of a more medical variety. The enigmatic captain Dr. Heston promises on his luxury ship plastic surgery “procedures that smack of science fiction.” These procedures are so strange and inventive that the primary joy in this funny novel comes from discovering the idiosyncrasies of the women who desire them, and the unintended consequences the alterations leave behind.
From the beginning it’s clear Harding’s greatest skill is character portraiture. Our four main characters Bianca, Nicole, Lyla, and Annalie come to PILGRIM with regrets, aspirations, and secrets. Harding, through exposition that never feels gratuitous and dialogue that often lands, guides us into their three-dimensional lives.
Harding explores Annalie’s grief with powerful imagery: “In certain spaces she thought she could feel her sister’s presence, and she would turn abruptly only to find another woman blinking back at her, or to discover she was alone. So alone.” Annalie cannot look into a mirror without seeing her lost twin, and so procedures that promise to entirely alter her appearance seem like the last hope for a comfortable life.
Harding cleverly uses Annalie’s procedures, or “excursions” as the staff calls them, to highlight the character’s desires and investigate the themes guiding her decisions. It’s a treatment Harding gives to each of the women. Bianca, for example, is a tennis pro who fears her familial sacrifices will mean nothing if she can’t de-age her body and win a tournament. Lyla is an infertile maternity ward nurse who wants an artificial pregnancy.
The women meet and chat, disclose and lie. They ruminate and fret. They argue and betray. Jumping between the third-person limited omniscience of each main character, readers understand the discrepancies between how they present themselves and how they really are.
For example, at first Bianca conceals that she all but left her family for a tennis career because she’s intimidated by Lyla’s domestic bliss. “She didn’t know Lyla well enough to reveal what she had given up for her shot at a career. And the woman had three kids!”
Of course, we readers, because we also see Lyla’s point of view, know she lies about having children. She’s infertile but makes up stories so that she can live out a maternal fantasy. Seeing the world from Bianca’s perspective, readers experience what it’s like to be fooled by Lyla while simultaneously knowing the lie.
That knowledge-doubling effect is a distinctly bookish sensation and shows the author’s strong understanding of the medium’s possibilities. I was happy to find moments like that sprinkled all throughout Pilgrims 2.0, moments which take full advantage of the novel’s voices and perspectives.
Harding deserves praise for subverting expectations. Based solely on the novel’s description one might think it was a polemic against plastic surgery, a screed aimed at the shallowness of our times. But it’s much, much more.
One could imagine more cynical authors taking the premise to grotesque places: body modifications so alluring they border on immoral, cruel elitist passengers desperate to cheat death by any means necessary, etc. But Harding is not that author. She pushes beyond the purely satirical. Perhaps she’s too empathetic, or sympathetic, to do anything resembling a “take down.” There’s no blood here. Well, there is, obviously, but only literally.
The women on the ship may be naive in their hopes for reinvention; however, they are mostly kind and well-intentioned. Harding describes the passengers as a whole in these terms: “Now, as adults, they took self-care seriously. They were committed to rigorously managing, even mastering, their life experiences.” They’re obsessive sure, myopic maybe, but decidedly sympathetic.
Harding is interested in the complications, the nuances. She faces the question “Why would someone want to reinvent themselves completely?” not through the moralistic lens of a scathing satirist, but through the compassionate eyes of a curious modernist. As a result, the reader enjoys a truly rewarding experience. Where the novel could easily become mocking or mean, she stays the course and produces a compelling narrative with fully realized characters. There’s no doubt Harding is a fresh voice well worth our attention.
By Lindsey Harding
Published November 15, 2023
Adam Kaz is a Chicago-based freelance writer, editor of The Ground Is Uneven, and marketing professional. His work has appeared in Third Coast Review, The Chicago Review of Books, Digital Huddle, The Chicago Machine, and The Ground Is Uneven.