Everyone who liked Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit from the Goon Squad will probably like Look at Me, a novel published in 2001. Even if you weren’t crazy about A Visit from the Goon Squad because of all the ’70s music references or the disconnectedness of it, you might like this novel of intersecting stories better because the stories are more closely tied together.
Charlotte Swenson, a beautiful model who doesn’t reveal her true age, is getting less and less work through her agent and is firmly in denial that it’s not too late to reach supermodel status, when she is in an accident and has to have facial reconstruction surgery to put her face back together. Her whole life in New York City has been built around how she looks. But, although her face can be fixed and the damage repaired (This is a novel about alteration, not disfigurement), Charlotte becomes unrecognizable to herself and to others.
Charlotte’s is just one story line in the book, but even though Charlotte herself is a loner, an aging party girl, a beauty for hire (one of Jennifer Egan’s recurring images,) her story is the one that connects all the others. There’s Charlotte’s timid sister, Grace; the private detective, Anthony Halliday, wanting to talk with Charlotte about the accident; Charlotte’s childhood best friend, also a beauty, Ellen, with a family of her own now; Moose, Ellen’s brother; Ellen’s daughter, Charlotte, and her son Ricky; a new teacher at their school who says he comes from California; and Irene, a reporter assigned to write a story on Charlotte. In this pre-9/11 novel, the author also imagines the consummate outsider – a man from an unspecified Islamist country who discards and changes identities convincingly, infiltrating and assimilating, while plotting spectacular acts of terrorism and burning with hatred for America and Americans. While bringing out serious themes and ideas, the author can be playful with her characters and treats some of their interactions with light irony.
There is so much to talk about in this novel – beauty, image, media, celebrity, family, class, culture, terrorism – that it could make for a great book discussion book, for a group that wouldn’t get too distracted by Charlotte’s cocaine- and booze-fueled lifestyle and the reckless behavior of many, if not all, of the characters during their individual crises of identity. (A lot of characters go off the rails in this one.) Charlotte herself is fascinating, but not likeable.
This is a wide-ranging novel (20 hours long) and narrator Rachael Warren does an incredible job voicing the thoughts of the mostly female main characters, especially Charlotte. Each character’s story is important, resonating with the other stories and carrying layers of meaning within itself, but the audiobook narrator lightly conveys the different personalities of each character with slight changes in her voice. The only quibble I have with the audio production is that there were errors that weren’t edited out. Not just the many odd pronunciations (which I always figure could actually be me with the incorrect pronunciation) but also a few clear mistakes to the extent that I haven’t heard on audiobooks before. For example, “She twirled her head on a finger” instead of “She twirled her hair on a finger” and “Front Loop” instead of “Froot Loop”. I wondered if they were on the audio edition on CD or only on the Audible download. These occasional errors were surprising and a little distracting, but wouldn’t stop me from recommending this as a very good audiobook.
Disclosure: I received Look at Me by winning a free Audible download of my choice of any book by a female author from audiobook narrator Karen White’s Home Cooked Books blog.