Look at Me – Jennifer Egan

“Reconstructive facial surgery after a car crash so alters Manhattan model Charlotte that, within the fashion world, where one’s look is oneself, she is unrecognizable. Seeking a new image, Charlotte engages in an Internet experiment that may both save and damn her. As her story eerily converges with that of a plain, unhappy teenager – another Charlotte – it raises tantalizing questions about identity and reality in contemporary Western culture. Jennifer Egan’s bold, innovative novel, demonstrating her virtuosity at weaving a spellbinding, ambitious tale with language that dazzles, captures the spirit of our times and offers an unsettling glimpse of the future.”

Despite this book’s title making me mentally sing that annoying Spice Girls song in my head every time I picked it up, I was really excited about starting Jennifer Egan’s new book. A Visit from the Goon Squad was quirky and fun and I was excited to see what was next on offer. The book started well – Charlotte Swenson’s life and childhood were interesting to read about and I found myself drawn into her world quickly. Egan draws a clever parallel between Charlotte – a model whose face, her livelihood, has been reconstructed after a major car accident – and her childhood’s friend’s daughter who is named after her. The two Charlottes meet the very beginning and very end of the novel as the two girls’ lives come full circle.

With metal pins in every inch of her face, Model Charlotte’s bid to find work ends up in a dramatic and abortive photo shoot. A hunt with attractive private detective Anthony Halliday to find a mysterious gentleman ‘Z’ dredges up a relationship from her past, and to earn some money she embarks on a joint venture with journalist Irene Maitlock to sell her unique story. Meanwhile, the young but sage Charlotte is weathering a relationship with an older man, her brother is recovering from leukaemia and private history lessons with her uncle Moose are not exactly going as planned.

As both women wallow in their own misery – Charlotte Swenson drowns herself in drink and cigarettes as the scene she so easily used to navigate becomes hostile and unfriendly, whilst Charlotte Metcalf is left feeling miserable as her first love ups sticks and leaves town without any notice. These events lead the story back to both Charlottes’ hometown, Rockford, a place that traps both protagonists in its stifling blandness. Historical facts recounted by both Moose and Charlotte lends authenticity to the small-town world Egan so painstakingly creates.

Although I found Charlotte Swenson’s parts of the story more interesting – her discovery of ‘shadow selves’, an individual’s real persona, and her relationships with Irene, her agent Oscar and teetotal detective Anthony – Egan brings the lives of two completely different people together seamlessly whilst weaving her offbeat charm throughout. With sophisticated sentence structure, witty and natural dialogue and poignant underlying themes that she touches on subtly but firmly, Look at Me is another literary success from Jennifer Egan.

Many thanks to Constable & Robinson for the review copy.

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