Look At Me, By Jennifer Egan

Books Of The Year: Appearances are darkly deceiving

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The Independent Culture

On page one of this novel, Charlotte Swenson, a model, goes through the windscreen of her car and smashes every bone in her face.

After total reconstructive surgery, with 80 titanium screws holding her new face on, she looks more or less normal – but no longer anything like her old self. Her modelling career seems finished; but she has the chance of a new career as one of the faces on a new reality website.

It's impossible to sum up this sharp, clever, complex, satirical novel in a few plotlines; but other significant characters include another Charlotte, teenage daughter of Swenson's old schoolfriend, alienated, disaffected and ready for an affair with her new maths teacher; and Moose, the younger Charlotte's uncle, an academic who nearly blew up all his students, and who believes that Western civilisation truly began when the invention of glass let in the light, and is declining now that we see nothing but surfaces.

First published in 2001, Look at Me now appears alarmingly prescient. Since it was written, our obsession with appearance has grown and so has our fascination with reality shows – not to mention the dark undercurrent of terrorism within Western society. I can't do this 514-page novel justice in 250 words. It's funny and serious, dry, sly and wry. The writing is as pin-sharp as the perceptions. If you didn't read it in 2011, make it your New Year's resolution to read it in 2012.

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