The accident catapults the narrator, Charlotte Swenson, through the windshield, breaking the bones in her face but –
after extensive plastic surgery – leaving her with no visible scars. What immediately catches one’s attention, as much as the novel’s arresting premise, is the manner in which it’s presented: The vocabulary, the crisp, graceful sentences, the intelligence of tone, all suggest that behind the narrative is a consciousness, and, behind the consciousness a writer who knows what she’s doing … The bleakness of the landscape she depicts seems scarily like our own: a culture that finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the fresh and the tired, between incisiveness and obfuscation, and which seems to prefer the simulacrum to the real thing. Happily, Look at Me is the real thing-brave, honest, unflinching.
After surviving both a car crash that shattered every bone in her face and a series of reconstructive surgeries, Charlotte must design a new life, having been given a face that's unrecognizable not only to those from her past, but to her as well. This Charlotte holds the center of Look at Me … Look at Me shouldn't be lumped together with the skin-deep works of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. Charlotte isn't your average fictional model. To the extent that she's obsessed with appearances, it's only to look for a person's ‘shadow self’ … Look at Me is about bigger things: double lives; secret selves; the difficulty of really seeing anything in a world so flooded with images.
At first Look at Me seems to be heading down a predictable path, with heartwarming lessons to be learned about how interior and exterior life merge and deviate. Yet Egan is up to something more tricky here...Egan's agenda involves more than a model's identity quest. She quickly introduces a second narrative: the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl back in Rockford who happens to be the daughter of Charlotte's estranged childhood best friend – and, in a top-that-doppelgänger move, is also named Charlotte … Look at Me strains under the weight of Egan's multiple ambitions, and her satire of the fashion world and dot-com mania is facile and only sporadically funny. The older Charlotte remains something of a cipher – intentionally so, one suspects; Egan never quite explains what it must feel like to walk through the world so anonymously and yet still unaltered at the core. Even so, substantial portions of this novel are truly moving.
Egan, not much for subtlety, makes the point she’s been getting at all along. American culture has replaced identity with image — true beauty with the idea of beauty or fashion, real nourishment with its Happy Meal equivalent — the way paper money has replaced gold coins … Egan’s message is carried by a tale of two Charlottes. The elder Charlotte is a Manhattan fashion model longing to live her life in ‘the mirrored room,’ surrounded by refracted images of herself. The book begins with a car crash — just outside her hometown, Rockford, Ill. — that alters Charlotte’s appearance. Though not disfigured, her face is unrecognizable to the fashionable set that has populated her world … Propelled by plot, peppered with insights, enlivened by quirkily astute characterizations, and displaying an impressive prescience about our newly altered world, Look at Me is more nuanced than it first appears.
Look at Me is ambitious, attempting to include in its compass a broad sampling of types. It includes, among other characters, a fashion model, an adjunct professor of cultural studies, a private detective, a Web impresario and a Shi'ite terrorist. These people end up spending a lot of time together in Rockford, Ill., a postindustrial botch of a burg and a lint trap of consumer culture … Ambitious as Egan is, she lets her narrative bloat. Subplot after subplot comes along – the brother of young Charlotte visits a massage parlor; the private detective struggles with a drinking problem; the cultural studies professor has a disjointed home life – leaving the reader to wonder what they add to the whole. The novel also wavers uneasily at times between sincerity and satire, and so ends up undercutting the potency of either mood. Nonetheless, Egan has created some compelling characters and written provocative meditations on our times.
This is a sprawling, ambitious novel that links together some of the most diverse characters you could imagine … This [older] Charlotte dominates the first half of the book, and her narrative provides most of the fun in the book. Callous, impulsive and selfish (who wants to read about a saintly model?), she tries to claw her way back into the glossy Manhattan fashion circle, but finds her new face no longer passes muster. Her descent into drink, despair and so on could have been clichéd, but Egan gives her much more depth than that.
Look at Me, plumbs the depths of America's obsession with appearance, exploring the interplay between what is real and what is merely perceived … Look at Me combines the tautness of a good mystery with the measured, exquisitely articulated detail and emotional landscape of the most literary of narratives. Egan creates distinct voices and interweaves them with a dexterity that makes the suspense feel effortlessly created. Her characters a middle-aged high school star buckling under the weight of his view of the world; a plain teenager searching for anything extraordinary; a decent college professor shocked by her ability to deceive, among others assemble on the page like guests at a masquerade party and don their masks (concealing their shadow selves, as Charlotte terms them).
In her sprawling, ambitious second novel, Egan questions the shift in America’s cultural underpinnings from industry to information, using as dual settings the hip fashion world of Manhattan and the nation’s demographic and geographic middle, represented by Rockford, Illinois … 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.
Equipped with an arresting premise, Egan's hip and haunting second novel gets off to a promising start … Though expertly constructed and seductively knowing, Egan's tale is marred by the overblown trendiness at its core. Charlotte (the model, who progresses from horrid to just bearable by the end) and the others come to the same realization: a world ruled by the consumerist values bred by mass production and mass information is ‘a world constructed from the outside in.’ The Buddha said it better.