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Reconstructive facial surgery after a car crash so alters Manhattan model Charlotte that, within the fashion world, where one's look is oneself, she is unrecognizable. Seeking a new image, Charlotte engages in an Internet experiment that may both save and damn her. As her story eerily converges with that of a plain, unhappy teenager - another Charlotte - it raises tantalizing questions about identity and reality in contemporary Western culture.
Jennifer Egan's bold, innovative novel, demonstrating her virtuosity at weaving a spellbinding, ambitious tale with language that dazzles, captures the spirit of our times and offers an unsettling glimpse of the future.
Equipped with an arresting premise, Egan's hip and haunting second novel (after The Invisible Circus) gets off to a promising start. Thirty-five-year-old Charlotte, a thoroughly unpleasant Manhattan-based model who escaped the middle-class nothingness of her upbringing in Rockford, Ill., then spent her adult life getting by on appearances, literally loses her face in a catastrophic car accident back in Rockford. As Charlotte's rebuilt face heals and she goes unrecognized at the restaurants and nightclubs that were her old haunts, she must grapple with the lives and losses she has tried to outrun a fractured childhood friendship, the fianc she betrayed and "Z," a suspicious man from an unidentified Middle Eastern country. Anthony Halliday, an attractive, tormented private investigator, interrupts Charlotte's isolation. Hired by a pair of nightclub owners to track down Z because he absconded with a pile of their money, Halliday carries the scent of romance, but he also kicks off a chain of introductions that bizarrely lands Charlotte in the "mirrored room" of great fame. She is reconnected with her past at the same time that she becomes part of a brave new Internet world, where identity itself is a consumable commodity. Oddly, this narrative alternates with that of her old friend Ellen's daughter (also named Charlotte), whose life in Rockford centers around two older men. 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. National advertising; author tour.FYI:Egan's writing appears in publications like the New Yorker andHarper's, andThe Invisible Circus was recently made into a film featuring Cameron Diaz.