Look at Me: A Novel

by Jennifer Egan

Paperback, 2002




Anchor (2002), Edition: Reprint, 544 pages


Fiction. Literature. HTML: At the start of this edgy and ambitiously multilayered novel, a fashion model named Charlotte Swenson emerges from a car accident in her Illinois hometown with her face so badly shattered that it takes eighty titanium screws to reassemble it. She returns to New York still beautiful but oddly unrecognizable, a virtual stranger in the world she once effortlessly occupied. With the surreal authority of a David Lynch, Jennifer Egan threads Charlotte's narrative with those of other casualties of our infatuation with the image. There's a deceptively plain teenage girl embarking on a dangerous secret life, an alcoholic private eye, and an enigmatic stranger who changes names and accents as he prepares an apocalyptic blow against American society. As these narratives inexorably converge, Look at Me becomes a coolly mesmerizing intellectual thriller of identity and imposture..… (more)

Media reviews

A critic could write a long essay on the novel's sophisticated treatment of perception, image, media and identity. Luckily for you, I won't. What more people have found exciting here is the uncanny way in which many of Egan's futuristic visions have come true.
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Less pedantic than its message would indicate, the book reads like both a mystery and a romance novel, like a Raymond Chandler detective story and, at times, a Judy Blume teenage-problem book. Propelled by plot, peppered with insights, enlivened by quirkily astute characterizations, and displaying
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an impressive prescience about our newly altered world, “Look at Me” is more nuanced than it first appears. Ultimately, it takes us beyond what we see and hints at truths we have only just begun to understand.
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Given the sorry state of so much current fiction, the appearance of a novel with a narrative style that seems fresh, accurate, clear and inventive-especially when combined with a gift for observation and the delineation of character-is truly an occasion for calling up one's friends to announce that
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the novel has once again survived the latest dire predictions of its demise.
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Egan reminds us too often that her philosophical concern is with appearance: how what is seen defines what is. But any impatience with overwriting and plot manipulations is overwhelmed by the ever-present page-turning energy. A surprisingly satisfying stew of philosophy, social commentary, and
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Yarrow
I bought this just after finishing 'A visit from the goon squad' and I was just as impressed. Basically three individual stories are tangentially connected, nevertheless each one gripped me in different ways. Older Charlotte is an ex-model who has reconstructive facial surgery after an accident and
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becomes desperate when none of her old acquaintances recognise her - desperate enough to sign up to a truly invasive Internet scheme. This was my favourite strand even though Charlotte herself isn't very likeable. Younger Charlotte is restless in her teenage life and has an affair with an older man to try and quell her restlessness - I thought that this Charlotte was drawn really well and was an entirely believable, if unusual, teenager. Finally there's the middle eastern terrorist who plans to bring down America from the inside, but ends up being sucked further and further in.

This book was written in 2001, before 9/11 and before so much of our lives began to be lived online. As a result it feels alternately naive and prescient. The character of the terrorist is less believable now in a post 9/11 world but he is sympathetically drawn and his journey is comically bleak at the end. Similarly the 'real-life' Internet experiment that Charlotte takes part in is all too familiar now - the only detail strange to us is how much money she gets paid for sharing her life online.

Not only is Jennifer Egan a brilliant writer who manages that rare combination of readable and well-crafted prose, she seems to have predicted the future. 10 years on, this still feels like a book that is of our time and well worth a read today.
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LibraryThing member roses7184
It's hard to truly describe my feelings about this book. It's not that Jennifer Egan isn't an excellent writer. Quite the opposite actually, she's very good at creating characters with depth and breadth. The problem, for me, was in the writing. This is a massively over-written book. Points that
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could have been wrapped up in a matter of sentences were drawn out and wordy. At points the writing felt so convoluted that I almost gave up. I feel like this book could have been much shorter and still been wonderfully done.

That being said, the book itself is rather compelling and the story is the major reason that I kept on reading. Egan dives into the human psyche, taking a look at how our outward appearance really affects the way we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others. She does an stellar job of creating three characters who show this in their own ways. Toeing the themes of attraction, obsession, and mental illness, Look At Me is much more intellectual than it seems on the surface.

The parallels between young Charlotte and older Charlotte were intriguing. I especially enjoyed taking a look inside the psyche of a teenage girl who feels like she is looking in from the outside. It made for a rough read at some points, and I'm sure there are people who will be offended by the choices she makes, but it was still an interesting read. My other gripe about this book was mainly Moose as a character. He is so broken, so mentally destroyed, that being in his head actually hurts. I could have done without him, honestly.

I'd recommend that if you do decide to tackle this lengthy read, you pass on the audio version. Although it did help me keep my characters separated by voice, the length of the book is actually exacerbated by the audio. About three quarters of the way through I was fairly ready to be done with Look At Me. Try this is you're a reader who enjoys contemporary reads that deal with real life issues and have deep characters.
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LibraryThing member strandbooks
I loved A Visit from the Goon Squad and Manhattan Beach so I decided to try one of Jennifer Eagan’s older books. It wasn’t nearly as good as her newer ones. It’s partly the writing but also the plot doesn’t age well. It was written in 2000, as reality TV was taking shape but social media
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hadn’t started yet. It revolves around a handful of characters disillusioned by their mid-west existence or minor characters who are 1-dimensional. Overall there were too many characters and not enough understanding of their motivations.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
I have mixed feelings about this book. I loved how the author took several characters stories and slowly wove them together like a French braid. I enjoyed the different facets of the theme of how humans see the world, and see women. But I had a difficult time with many of the characters.

The book
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is written in both first person and third. Charlotte Swenson takes first person. She’s an aging model- well, aging by the standards of the fashion world. She’s thirty five, but claims to be 28. She’s spent her whole life wanting to have people look at her. Now she’s had a terrible auto accident that crushed her face. She has 80 titanium screws holding her facial bones together now, and it’s funny- no one recognizes her, even people she’s known for years. She thinks it’s because her face has been rearranged, but as she tries to get modeling work she finds that it’s worse than that- she’s gotten too old to be a model, especially since she never really hit the big time. She is now invisible to the fashion and media world, as older women frequently are. But it was pretty hard for me to care much, because Charlotte is fairly obnoxious and self absorbed.

The stories of the other characters are all told in third person. Teen aged Charlotte, the daughter of older Charlotte’s best childhood friend, is trying to get seen clearly by people rather than being seen through the lens of a lying boy. A college professor is trying to get a student, any student, to see the world clearly. A terrorist assimilates himself so well in a dozen different places, blending in perfectly as if he’s bending light around himself. A teenage boy who had cancer wants to be seen as a teenage boy, not a boy with cancer. Celebrities are seen as interchangeable in the end.

It’s a great theme- I loved how Egan explored so many different aspects of the theme- and it’s mostly done very well, albeit a bit slow in some spots. I was a little disappointed with the ending- it was all building up to one heck of a climax and I thought that all the strands would come together there, but I was let down a bit. But not disappointed enough to not recommend this book pretty highly.
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LibraryThing member SandSing7
Two Charlottes, an elder and a younger, trying to find their way in a world that worships beauty. Just one problem…they’re not beautiful. The elder - a supermodel who has been in a car accident. The younger - a shy, intuitive young girl who was born nothing like a supermodel. An insightful
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perception of American culture.

The final images are as haunting as they are prophetic.
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LibraryThing member BinnieBee
I was very disappointed at the end of this book. It kept me very interested (at least in one or two storylines; I just skimmed past Moose's story after about half the book), but I expected everything to be explained in the end and I certainly did not feel that it was.
LibraryThing member karieh
It's interesting...there are so many themes being played out in this book - and my opinions mirror those of the characters on almost all of them - and yet? I was not as engrossed in this book as I thought I would be.

Urban sprawl/blight, the superficiality of our society, the
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happy/fat/stupidity/contentedness of Americans, our desire to believe that "reality" media is actaully reality...Egan tackles all of these subjects and more...including an eerily prescient portrait of a terrorist in New York (this was written just prior to 9/11).

Given my four star rating - I certainly cannot say that I disliked the book - I just wanted to be drawn in a bit more. Although - in thinking of the nature of most of the main characters - that is the last thing they would have wanted. The only things that seem to matter are surface things. Like the book's title - "Look at Me"...suggesting that if the characters had their way - we would only judge this book by the cover.
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LibraryThing member aliciamalia
This was a random library pick--it has pages of glowing reviews. I was drawn to the subject matter (identity; it's the story of a model who becomes unrecognizable after a major car accident). The plot, however, goes in strange directions--terrorism, the internet, lots of bad guys--and ultimately
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lost my interest.
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LibraryThing member bchesney
I liked the study of identity and the picture at the end of the "hard, beautiful seashells left behind long after the living creatures within have struggled free and swum away." Several descriptions in the book are spot-on like this and make it worth reading.

A few of the characters are incomplete,
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I think Michael West is one of them despite the author's focus on and controversy surrounding him. The Good Samaritan in the beginning isn't sufficiently explored, despite the ending.

Some of the male characters come across as charicatures: Michael West and Anthony Halliday. But Charlotte's (elder) identity is explored with depth and feeling. The middle of the book is fantastically written, as we start to get inside her head.
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LibraryThing member maribs
This was an interesting book. No real plot that I could tell but I still read it.

The reason?

The characters. Each character is so interesting and so different, yet they are all interconnected in some way. They have their secrets, their faults and I just couldn't wait to see what was going to
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happen to them next.

So, who are these people?

There is the main character, Charlotte, a twenty-something model that had to have reconstructive surgery to her face after a car accident. Her old high school friend, Ellen, who is now married and has two children, one in remission from leukimia. The eldest, Charlotte, is sixteen, experimenting with sex and older men. Her uncle and Ellen's brother, Moose, a brilliant but troubled professor, who was institutionalized for awhile.

Like I said, interesting and captivating. It is like finding out about the gossip of people you once knew.
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LibraryThing member thelittlereader
with a hugely attractive beginning, egan hooked me in with her multiple character lines, all struggling with identity in their own way. theres charlotte - the post-accident fashion model having to reconstruct her life, anthony halliday - a recovering alcoholic private investigator, the man known
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only as 'Z' who mysteriously disappeared, another charlotte - a high school student wandering the halls of womanhood, and moose - the slightly deranged college professor obsessed with rockford, illinois' history. and on and on. the characters really hooked me, and reminded me in so many ways of every personal struggle i've ever felt and seen.however, as the storyline moved along, i was able to relate less and less. what started as a thought provoking presentation of self discovery became a koontz-like mystery to determine the identity of the mysterious character 'z'. as the story comes together and all of the character lines merge into a collective story, i really had to force myself to finish it. strange to say, but this was one story that i could have done without the story and would have been happier with only the characters.i give it a B minus.
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LibraryThing member adzebill
Prescient, given it was written before 9/11. An exploration of identity in modern America, especially in the age of the internet. Some of the best depictions of loss of identity, or the transistion from one to another, that I've read. An engaging, enjoyable read.
LibraryThing member stillatim
Ever wanted to read a philosophical novel with all the philosophy taken out? Here's your beast. I'd thought, since she's been in the news for a recent novel, that Egan was alive and well, but this novel makes it quite obvious that she died sometime around 1914, and is in fact a Victorian novelist
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disguised as our contemporary. Why is it obvious?

* slightly poetic but otherwise totally banal prose style.
* huge numbers of plots that never actually get joined together.
* fascination with characters, but no way of actually distinguishing them other than altering their ages and genders (i.e., they all sound exactly the same).
* at least twice as long as it should have been.
* obsession with social and intellectual issues, but in a purely personal manner that, ironically, never does much more than skim the surface of said issues.
* silly ideas about seeing people's 'true selves.'

Yes: this is a Victorian novel, written about what we think of as a uniquely twentieth century problem, the obsession with images and appearances.

More specifically, for the first 100 pages, the first-person narrative of Charlotte the model is really boring, and the third person narrative of Charlotte the young girl is great. For the next 300 pages, this is so completely inverted that I almost skipped whole chapters to get back to the actual story, as young Charlotte's plot blossomed out into a whole bunch of useless, shit flowers (her brother has cancer! her uncle is crazy! her friends are teenagers!). Yes, there's all sorts of neat, foreheadsmackingly obvious parallels between the Charlottes (they both relate to people only through sex! they both live/d in Rockford! they know some of the same people! they both alter their appearance! they're both involved with a man who might be a terrorist but actually appears to have decided to direct movies instead!), but otherwise there's no connection between them. In other words: one story, told twice. Not fun.

The breathless praise this book received suggests that people really like reading about things that are just about to happen, and that's fair. But I was deeply disappointed: this could have been a monster. As it is, it's period piece, but one that makes me think I ought to keep reading her novels, because she clearly *could* write the monster.
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LibraryThing member poolspy
liked the bits about shadow selves
LibraryThing member peajayar
Excellent writing. Chilling story exposing some of the mores of contemporary culture.
LibraryThing member Stuckey_Bowl
liked the bits about shadow selves
LibraryThing member Stahl-Ricco
A really good read, with lots of strong characters! I didn't love them all (especially Moose), but Charlotte, Charlotte, Z and the gang were super interesting! Glad I read it!
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
Overall I liked this tale of identity and seeing clearly, but it was a little frustrating. Particularly with model Charlotte and her endless self-destruction. Everything from her drinking to her free-fall career plans. She really seemed to hate herself, her life and everything she’d done. She
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also seemed to act out with that hatred, too. The booze trick with the detective was pretty low. As was wishing he would take up the bottle again, which he does, much to my disappointment. Egan seemed to give more agency to young Charlotte than to old. Some characterize her seduction of Michael West as orchestrating her own sexual abuse, but it didn’t come off that way to me, and having been a teenage girl, I don’t see it that way either. Sure, some girls are abused and manipulated, but Charlotte wasn’t one of them.

West, Z or Aziz as he is known by turns, is a strange character. He lived in New York and still snow is new? Huh? I wasn’t sure what to make of him. At first he seemed just another thug trying to get away with a scam, but then he got a little religious, but it didn’t stick and when he just vanished at the end, I wondered if he’d been totally seduced by “the West” as he had been by Charlotte. Did he finally see himself clearly? We’ll never know and I’m ok with that. Not everything should be tied up in a bow.

The other character to mystify me was Moose. I couldn’t see his connection to anyone else and have no idea what purpose he served. After a while I skimmed a lot of his anguish and male twisting in the wind. I couldn’t understand his obscure obsessions or why he resorted to torturing his students with a bomb. It was bizarre. I did like the way his ramblings brought glass and its history into things; how it has affected the way humanity functions and sees itself, both literally and figuratively. His book about it, or maybe it was someone elses’, is something I would willingly read.

Young Charlotte on the other hand was real and I tought her writing and inner monologues rang quite true for an adolescent. That horrible division between wanting to be unique and wanting to fit in. No protective coloration. She had it in spades.

In the end, Egan splices all the narratives together without distinction - you were taken from one aspect to another in adjoining sentences and I’m not sure this was necessary. I didn’t see what it did that a more traditional spacing wouldn’t have done, other than make me read things over again. And all of the musings on terrorism and especially the failed attack on the world trade center must have freaked Egan out a little since this was published just after the successful attacks. Also the whole thing with the “Personal Space” project. Jeez. It reeked of My Space, but had none of the prescience of Facebook. Of course, none of us knew that then. Except a few. Kind of creepy in a way.
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LibraryThing member framberg
I struggled a little to get into this book, but once I did I was wholly immersed. It's fascinating to see that Egan is already, in the 1990's, thinking about the themes that will make Goon Squad and Candy House so compelling. Look At Me makes me appreciate Egan's brilliance even more; she
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essentially anticipates so many elements of our modern culture, the fascinations and the traumas. I found the epigraph especially illuminating, and kept the idea that whoever we are looking at, we always see ourselves in mind as I was reading. It added a meditative layer to my reading, a purpose that I relished. That layer, on top of the compelling stories and mysteries of Egan's characters, made this a deeply satisfying and somewhat unsettling read.
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LibraryThing member voracious
After reading "A Visit from the Goon Squad" and "The Keep", I expected this Egan novel to be much better than it was. This story is about a model who must undergo facial reconstruction after car accident, which leads others to not recognize her and interferes with her ability to get modeling work.
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Charlotte was already 35 when the accident occurred, however, and her work options had already been dwindling before the accident. To make the story more complicated, a separate character (also named Charlotte) is introduced. This teen Charlotte is trying to find her purpose through relationships with adult males, one who mentors her (her mentally ill uncle Moose) and another who develops an intimate relationship with her. These two storylines remain disparate through almost the entire book, with another unknown character "Z" who potentially ties the storylines together. The story also integrates the emergence of a social networking theme (the book was published in 2001, before social media became commonplace), which furthers the theme of narcissistic exposure and recreating one's identity.

I found this book slow and unnecessarily burdened down by excessive detail. I was halfway through and seriously considered giving up on this novel because it didn't draw me in. I finally finished it, but I can't say it was worth it. I love Egan's other works but it is hard to believe this one was a National Book Award Finalist.
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LibraryThing member Audacity88
Seems to be satirizing the culture of the modeling world, but I found the plot twists over-the-top, particularly the “recreation” for film of the accident,


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