I decided to read this after I had such a wonderful experience with A Visit from the Goon Squad earlier this year, and several people said that they thought this was better in many ways, so how could I possibly resist? I took it on holiday with me in october and made a good start but took ages to finish it, not because I wasn’t enjoying it but because as often happens, life got in the way.
But finish it I did and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Charlotte Swenson is a model now in her early thirties, past the peak of her career but still getting catalogue and other work sufficient to maintain a certain lifestyle in Manhattan. The book begins with her back in her home town near Chicago, recovering from a terrible car crash, her injuries so severe that her face has had to be reconstructed. While there she visits the home of her estranged best friend from school while she believes everyone is out, and gets caught by Ellen’s teenage daughter, also called Charlotte. The novel alternates between their two stories from that point on.
This is a book about identity; older Charlotte’s face looks just different enough that many of the people she knew from her glamorous life simply don’t recognise her, and she struggles to regain her place, ending up taking part in an internet experiment where her life will become available for everyone to follow online. Young Charlotte is struggling with growing up, trying to work out who she is and what she wants from life, against a background of her younger brother’s recovery from cancer and the strain that’s put on her family.
This summary of the very bare bones of the plot makes it sound really glum but I thought it was a smart, engaging and thought-provoking story about how we present ourselves to the world, regardless of what’s going on inside our heads. One of older Charlotte’s gifts (if you can out it like that) is to be able to see the secret inner life of the people she comes across; this only happens when they think no-one is watching and their guard comes down. Older Charlotte almost can’t relax with a person until she has seen that secret self.
There are a number of other characters in the book who serve to illuminate the struggles of the two main characters, including the mysterious Z who seems to have his own agenda as he infiltrates older Charlotte’s world. Indeed, it’s worth reading the author’s afterword where she talks about creating the character of Z well before 2001 and how differently the character appears after the events of 9/11.
My only quibble is that I felt the ending was in many ways rushed. Not badly written at all but I had become so attached to both Charlottes that I just wanted to know more about how things were finally resolved, though that may say more about me as a reader than the success of the novel.