"Desire and repulsion exist in tandem," Katy Kelleher writes at the start of her multifaceted debut, "The Ugly History of Beautiful Things." It's a lovely book but also, in chapters on perfume, silk, cosmetics, porcelain and so on, a book that reveals how rarely — if ever — loveliness may be uncomplicated. "The most poignant beauties," Kelleher writes, "are interthreaded with ugliness."

Despite the title, this is not exactly a history of things, though Kelleher has included a great deal of historical research. She carries the weight of that research with elegance and ease, drawing on interviews as well as texts that range from antiquity to contemporary years. And while Kelleher engages with issues such as climate change, wealth disparity and racial inequity, this is not a polemical book.

If anything, the book is a winding river of nearly associative thought, and the major pleasure in reading it is anticipating Kelleher's next turns. In the chapter on shells, she starts with Provincetown kitsch, moves on to the architecture of mollusks, and eventually describes the use of cowrie shells as payment for enslaved people in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Not all of Kelleher's material is violent or dark. Much of the time, in fact, she simply revels in the beauty of her subject matter, a reveling that is frequently made manifest in her language ("the blazing crimson of a blueberry barren," for example).

Kelleher writes patiently, painstakingly, with a sense of unfurling not unlike the meticulous act of plucking petals, one by one, to discover what lies underneath. There are lines as rhythmic and lyrical as poetry, as in this description, from the chapter on gemstones, of opalite as "this pretty, milky thing with its orange glints and green winks."

If Kelleher's book is marred by anything, it is by a certain timidity in the construction of her own ideas, an occasional habit of introducing those ideas with the phrase "I think." "I think there's a cultural tendency to blame women for their own suffering," she writes at one point.

And while Kelleher doesn't always dig quite as deep as you might like — "Religion brought me peace and comfort," she writes, "until it didn't," before moving on — most of these moments, with their swiftly flowing currents, are more tangential to the focus of her book than crucial to it. In the end, this isn't a book about her loss of faith.

Kelleher is at her best when she is unabashedly taking pleasure in the things she finds beautiful, whatever they might be, and even — especially — when they are also imbued with some form of ugliness or pain. "Once you realize how many things are iridescent," she concludes, "you can't unsee it."

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in LitHub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Millions, and elsewhere.

The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption
By: Katy Kelleher.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $27.99.