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Despite a premise as stale as the notion of penning the Great American Novel, Jennifer Egan breathes some life into the familiar story of the disfigured model.

In Look at Me, Egan introduces 35-year-old Charlotte, a New York model slumming in catalogue shoots. Her life veers off course when she flips her BMW in a cornfield outside of her childhood home in Rockford, Ill. With a new face and 80 titanium screws in her head, Charlotte eventually returns to her Manhattan penthouse and hopes to revive her career.

It's easy to draw comparisons between Charlotte and real-life fading model Niki Taylor, who spent months in an Atlanta hospital after a car accident that occurred shortly before the novel's publication. Look at Me features an even eerier coincidence in the character of Aziz, a Middle Eastern playboy who joins a terrorist cell to create horrific acts inside our smug, corrupt country -- a plot thread that was mere fantasy when the book was printed.

Aziz ends up running away to Rockford, shedding his Manhattan persona to become a high school math teacher, who beds the daughter of Charlotte's childhood friend. Also named Charlotte, the socially awkward 16-year-old invents an entirely different world through the seduction of Aziz, a relationship she naively believes she controls.

Brimming with colorful characters and sharp writing, Egan's novel takes a worn-out plot and makes it fresh by vacillating between the stories of the elder and younger Charlottes. However, toward the end of the book, the elder Charlotte's plot meanders into a surreal dot-com future that mixes "The Real World" and CBS' "Big Brother."

Look at Me wraps up abruptly, with an unrealistic, uninspiring twist. While Egan manages to sidestep the coincidences with real life that could have overshadowed a weaker narrative, she risks losing her audience with a weak satirical take on our country's obsession with reality TV.



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