on October 10, 2001
This novel far and away exceeded my expectations. I liked the idea of a novel about a person learning to live with a new face. I expected something quiet and thoughtful like Elizabeth Berg or Anne Tyler. "Look At Me" was a lot more than that, while still keeping the emotional appeal of those authors' books. At the beginning of the book, Charlotte, a model at the end of her career and going down, is in a horrible car accident. As she begins her recuperation, her path crosses with her former best friend's daughter, also named Charlotte. For most of the book, the two Charlottes' stories mirror each other. As one Charlotte learns to live her life over again, the younger Charlotte is discovering life and love for the first time. Both are dealing with issues related to their looks and esteem..."old" Charlotte has a new face that is slightly different than before, and young Charlotte must deal with her average looks and an unfair reputation as an easy girl. Each has a man in her life who is not what he seems. The mystery that ties them together is unexpected and really suspenseful. I was up until early in the morning reading "Look At Me", and was practically foaming at the mouth by the time I reached the climactic scene where everything was explained. Egan's prose is beautiful and literate, but without the denseness that made "The Invisible Circus" a slow-going read at the beginning. "Look At Me" zips along without abandoning intelligent thought and without taking the obvious turns so prevalent in mainstream fiction. Take a chance on this book...you'll love it!
on September 14, 2003
As other reviewers have noted, the premise for this book will draw you in. As I read it, however, I kept asking myself, Why is this has-been model's story all that exceptional since it sounds like her career was over anyway? This Internet venture is not believable! What was the point of the Anthony Halliday and Irene Maitlock characters-who get quite a bit of page time? Why even write about Ricky's cancer and his experience with the older skate kids? Why bother with Pluto the homeless man? These characters are all interesting, but in the end seem just a distracting tangent from the main story. I was waiting patiently for something to come together up until the last page of the book. As the stories seemed to want to converge, their connections were left undiscovered and the story seemed unfinished. terrible. I was disappointed.
on November 19, 2001
I would hate to be Jennifer Egan at the start of writing her third novel, because her second novel, Look at Me, will be a tough act to follow. Beautifully written and crafted, with a fugue-like structure, Egan shows how individual lives collide with history in unpredictable ways. Her main character, Charlotte Swenson, is a model from the mid-west who has her face surgically reconstructed after a devastating car accident that takes place during a visit to her despised home town. Charlotte's desperate but cynical repositioning of herself within New York's fashion world draws an incisive portrait of the workings of celebrity culture. Charlotte decides to sell her identity to a new web site, in the course of her personal re-launch. Similarly, a mysteriously missing acquaintance of Charlotte's discard his old identity, and creates himself anew in Charlotte's home town. Egan skillfully links this fluidity of identity with values underlying the larger popular culture, and makes credible the kind of passionate ideological response to popular culture that leads to terrible acts of violence. Like I said, prescient.
on April 10, 2007
Jennifer Egan's Look at Me, a National Book Award finalist, is a richly detailed novel which eerily describes cultural events that have come true in the six years since its original publication. The book tells interwoven stories of a high fashion model whose face is shattered and reconstructed following a car accident, a high school girl caught up in a secret affair distancing herself from her peers, and an embattled private eye fighting alcoholism and obsessed with a case involving the fashion model. The most mysterious character is a foreign man consumed by anger for all things American. He moves through society working on his accent and mannerisms, changing his name from town to town, plotting to destroy the American conspiracy.
Egan's novel not only discusses Middle Eastern sleeper cells in a pre-9/11/2001 world, it also predicts the absolute explosion of reality television and marketing, and the phenomenon of social networking on the Internet via tell-all personal spaces. (She wrote the novel over a six-year period and published in mid-2001).
The recurring theme is that of identity, and of the secret or shadow selves that we all hide. Egan's characters struggle to present the right face to the world (in some cases hiring manipulative publicists and marketers) while battling inner demons. The lives of her richly detailed characters gradually converge in a breathtaking climax that changes each one irrevocably.
on August 11, 2006
I am sad to say that I wasted precious summer leisure reading to this book, suggested to me by my wife. She was not sure what to think of it, and I was to confirm what she couldn't say. She picked it up because of its "National Book Award Finalist" stamp on the cover and the novelty of the back cover abstract. The novel begins with so much potential and the writing is especially competent that I couldn't help but feel let down when the whole thing begins to fall apart. When Egan throws in a wild internet scheme and a mysterious possible terrorist, it is easy to see that she has let the book wander away from its premise. What could have been an intelligent book about identity gives way to a cheap thriller.
It makes one wonder about the books chosen for book awards. While this book was only a finalist, I still have to wonder why it would have been in contention. I certainly don't expect my personal tastes to match those of these committees given the task of choosing the best books, but I do expect to be able to understand the merits of a chosen book, to see what others might see in it. Did the National Book Award folks decide on ambition alone? I certainly think Egan began with a topic challenging to author and reader, but doesn't the fact that she fails in her task weigh in the decision? I suppose I hadn't been let down more by a book in a long time and much of the reason was because of that silver stamp on the cover.
on August 19, 2003
I thought I'd try this novel after reading Egan's collection "Emerald City," which had some wonderful short stories in it. The book begins with the life of a model after a tragic accident and reconstructive surgery, an interesting premise, then begins to get confusing as it gets interleaved with the life of a teenager somehow loosely connected to the model. I stuck with this, hoping for beautiful language or reasonable leads as to where the story was going, but it only got more and more confusing to me, and began taking on the elements of a mystery or detective piece, a much different path than both how the story began and what I was expecting after reading the author's other work. I'm sure others will disagree, but I don't like big changes like this. If I invest in reading 200 pages, I would expect the latter 200 to follow suit and deliver in a contemporary style consistently, and regrettably I didn't find it here. A novel that this one seems to try to rival would be Nicholas Christopher's "A Trip to the Stars," however in that one, we know right away what's in store for us, whereas in this one I think readers will struggle too hard to try to keep up.
on November 5, 2010
I don't read much contemporary fiction. I picked up this novel and was at first intrigued. It started strong--I was interested in Charlotte the New York model with the reconstructed face and Charlotte the Rockford, IL teenager who develops a romantic interest in a much older man.
But matters deteriorated from there. It wasn't just that Charlotte the model is totally unlikeable--although she is. It's that the characters and the situations they became involved in were totally unbelievable. Don't the characters and situations have to have the ring of truth? Shouldn't they? It made no sense that the NYU professor should end up volunteering to help a private detective elicit information from Charlotte the model by posing as a reporter. It made no sense that "Z" should encounter the New York Charlotte in a Manhattan club one night and that very night they're in Charlotte's car driving non-stop to Rockford (for no reason I could fathom). Nothing about the character Moose (Rockford Charlotte's uncle) made any sense at all. (And how did "Z"--some sort of Middle Easterner with an undefined grudge against the West but no particular trade or occupation--manage to obtain a teaching credential and land a position as a high school math teacher apparently just days after finding himself in Rockford for the first time in his life? And why would he have wanted to do that anyway?)
I have seen some reviews that say that the novel deals with questions of identity, selfhood, celebrity, consumer culture, etc. I suppose the novel glances at these issues but the author has nothing interesting to say about them as far as I can tell. I could have put up with some vaporings about those topics if only the characters were recognizably human and the plot lines credible in terms of what I know of life. Maybe it's wrong to demand that of a novel. But this novel does not present itself as a fantasy or a parable but as a look at contemporary life, so I feel we can hold it to a standard of minimal human credibility. I didn't see that in this book.
on November 6, 2001
This book is incredibly eerie, especially in light of recent events. I'm almost convinced that anyone wanting to understand the events of Sept. 11 should read this book, because it gives an insight into the mind of (albeit fictional) terrorist, and provides a plausible explanation as to why other parts of the world hate us so much.
Even without that aspect though, this is still a fascinating book. It explores the idea of identity in so many different ways: the model who loses her face in a car accident; the young girl who longs for a life of more adventure, and who changes her identity day to day with a little makeup and no glasses; the young boy who hangs around a crowd of older boys just so he won't be seen as "sick" anymore, the suburban parents who fill their homes with things and fancy cars and country club memberships, but who hide anger and despair behind their smiles, and the terrorist who takes on personas and leaves them behind like yesterday's newspaper. It's scary to think that a person's identity can become a corporate entity--but Look At Me shows how that is happenening all around you, and makes you think "How much of me is really a reflection of capitalism?"
Overall, extremely well written, and compelling. My only gripe (and thus the 4 stars) is the ending. It felt rushed; almost as if the author was on a deadline and had to finish right away. Otherwise though, one of the best books of the year, and highly recommended.
on September 1, 2011
Every character in Jennifer Egan's _Look at Me_ is tortured by the social mundanity of life. Alas, each of the 7 billion of us suffers the same affliction. The interminable struggle to be noticed, to be different, to be special, to be distinguishable in some way haunts us from our first breath to our last. Yet, we also make every attempt to hide, to fade into the background, to blend into the wallpaper, to fly beneath the radar and hope nobody notices our mistakes, our imperfections, our very differences. "Look at me!" we plead. And when the world looks, we shy away - self-conscious, uncomfortable - and mutter, "Stop looking at me!" Egan encapsulates this juxtaposition of solipsism and avoidant personality disorder. Indeed, younger Charlotte actually says it - "I don't want to be like you! I want to be like everybody else!" (p. 366) Older Charlotte lives it - wanting desperately to be one of the privileged, beautiful few in the mirrored room while hiding uneasily behind a shadow self of guilt and self-loathing. _Look at Me_ offers that each person is, at once, both Ordinary and Extraordinary.
Egan's cast includes an array of personalities, each of whom is wrestling through life as best he or she can manage. The characters are relatable and likable, albeit, perhaps just a tad too insightful and self-aware at times. The reader will find himself occasionally wishing he could be as analytical and as clever and never at a loss for the perfect quip. These adriot individuals are intertwined in life and fate, past and future, flesh and spirit. Growth v. stagnation, maturity v. regression, self-realization v. cluelessness, conviction v. carelessness, spiritualism v. materialism, karma v. predestiny, forest v. trees - the visceral turmoils ring true.
And even though the story itself is gripping, it is Egan's writing style and command of the language that are most notable. She has a natural verbosity that is rarely forced and always well-chosen. The most erudite scholar will be appreciative, while the casual reader will not be put off; Egan is a master of contextual definition. Her use of simile and metaphor is astonishing. Character development, plot, scene, dialogue, conflict, narration, exposition - all ingeniuos. The reader will be rapt. The would-be writer will be envious.
on January 6, 2002
Look at Me is more than a pretty face as the title and plot line would have us initially believe. There are two parallel stories, about two Charlottes, whose lives intersect very briefly, but whose very names call us to a comparison. The first Charlotte is the New York model whose face is destroyed in a car accident at the beginning of the novel while on the road to her hometown in Rockford, Illinois. The second Charlotte is a teenager living in Rockford, the daughter of the model's childhood friend, and by implication, a namesake. For the younger Charlotte it is a tender and painful coming of age story, yet one which the reader senses may turn out better than the older woman's.
Along the way, there are several other memorable character portraits, among them: Pluto, the homeless man; Ellen, the childhood friend; Ricky, Ellen's son ; Anthony Halliday, the detective; Oscar, the agent; and Irene, the professor/writer.
Beyond the characters and the basic plot, we are treated to a complex novel which explores themes and issues of image versus substance, the industrial age versus the information age, and how changes in America over the last century for better and worse impact personal lives. Not surprisingly, we have a story that takes place in the place which dictates change, New York City, and the recipient of the new order, middle America, in this case represented by Rockford. The story of the industrial revolution's triumph and dissolution is seen through the eyes of a pathetic history professor. The story of the new order is represented by the multimedia virtual world of reality TV/internet/commercialism, where the model Charlotte's life becomes its fodder. There is a portending of where this will all lead in the face of unforeseen outside forces, in the case of the novel, the terrorist who lives among us, an eerily prescient view, written before and published on the eve of 9-11.