REVIEW: Easy Beauty by Chloé Cooper Jones

Reviewed by Jennifer Schuberth

While Chloé Cooper Jones’s Easy Beauty is a gripping memoir about parenting, disabilities, and figuring out what to do next, it is also a philosophical masterpiece, written in the tradition of those who see philosophy not as a dry academic subject but as a way of life. In prose that is gorgeous, concise, and often very funny, Cooper Jones explores how she has become a person who can say “I am here” and mean it, while also offering the reader practical advice about how to become such a person.

Cooper Jones wants to be “in the moment” but knows this has been embroidered on too many pillows to be taken seriously if she comes at it straight. So instead, she approaches at a slant and, following in the tradition of philosophers from Marcus Aurelius to Iris Murdoch, uses the particulars of her own body and mind as objects of inquiry.

Cooper Jones has a disability called sacral agenesis, which means she was born without a sacrum. Her hip joints are misaligned, giving her a “side-to-side” gait, and she is never without pain. Through novelistic episodes, Cooper Jones recounts the often cruel, dismissive, and inhumane ways people speak to and about her. Her body is a problem—for other people, including most of her readers. To understand what she thinks is her problem, readers must first see her not as a disabled body but as a specific individual who exists in a body that is disabled. Through a set of particulars, she establishes herself as a brilliant woman who likes sex, is often in physical pain, has a young son, a loving husband, a no-bullshit mother, great friends, and a sharp wit. She also reveals that her main existential concern is not her body but that she is in danger of becoming her father, who feels “oppressed by the dreadful normalcy of life.” Don’t we all?

Once Cooper Jones establishes a shared space with her reader, she begins chronicling some of her attempts to make everyday life less dreadful by appreciating what she calls easy beauty. As opposed to the aesthetic category of difficult beauty (think snobbish elitism of a New York art gallery), easy beauty is more democratic and accessible, like noticing a palm tree or a sunset, or appreciating Roger Federer’s backhand. Cooper Jones wants to be a person who can enjoy this kind of beauty but worries it won’t be enough for her. She illustrates her ambivalence when a friend raves about attending a Beyoncé concert: “An enjoyable experience, sure, but not where I’d find my epiphanies! Despite this, I kept an eye on her tour dates and I walked around our apartment occasionally stating aloud my disinterest in attending any of them.”

When she finally sees Beyoncé, it changes her: “For that night, no part of me is split, all of me was there, with all these screaming people . . . which begins to dissolve a corner of my conventional world.” Through this jolt of easy beauty, she feels in the moment and believes in the possibility of change.

Cooper Jones deftly moves between the personal and the philosophical, drawing on Iris Murdoch’s term “unselfing” to explain how moments of beauty can transform us by giving us a break from our “fat, relentless egos.” As in classical philosophy, Cooper Jones links the good, the beautiful, and the just but grounds it in her own life: “To make better choices and to be more just, we needed to change our consciousness.” The ability to appreciate easy beauty, such as the experience of a Beyoncé concert, helps Cooper Jones shift her perspective. For her, this change is a necessary but not sufficient part of becoming a better and more just human being.

As much as Easy Beauty is a memoir, it is also a guide for how one might live as a person who notices and can be changed by the easy beauty all around them. The book’s genius lies in how seamlessly it interrogates philosophical ideas in the context of a real life, in this case one that includes navigating the world as a woman, a mother, a spouse, a daughter, a person with a disability, a writer, a professor, and so much more. Cooper Jones’s reflections make philosophy more alive and more applicable to more lives. In the tradition of the philosophical exemplar, she touches on the truly universal, not in spite of her specificity but precisely because of it.

Toward the end of her book, Cooper Jones looks for her five-year-old son as they explore a Richard Serra sculpture in a scene that expertly weaves the personal and the philosophical. She writes, “Inside the sculpture, there is only the present, unfolding unpredictably, and so the only pleasure comes from not knowing what is ahead of me.” Similarly, the pleasure of being inside Easy Beauty is its embrace of uncertainty and the space it creates, where we might take a break from ourselves, if for just a few minutes, and live in the moment.

Jennifer Schuberth holds a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from the University of Chicago and was a Tin House 2020 novel workshop recipient. She has worked in academics and finance, and is currently a candidate in UC Riverside’s low-residency MFA.