Desert Isle Keeper
The Invisible Circus
Jennifer Egan’s a storied writer. She won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011 for Welcome to the Goon Squad. Her writings appear regularly in the New York Times. I’ve enjoyed all of Ms. Egan’s books but my favorite is her first The Invisible Circus. I recommended it my 18 year old niece this summer and, after she returned it–she loved it–I read it again.
The book is set in 1978. Phoebe O’Connor has just graduated from high school and is set to attend Berkeley in the fall. Phoebe’s life is to her, however, of little interest. Since her charismatic, troubled older sister Faith committed suicide when Phoebe was ten, Phoebe’s been frozen, unable to move into her future and obsessed with her sister’s past.
A chance meeting in Golden Gate Park with one of the hippies in Faith’s group of wild and alluring friends sends Phoebe on a trip to Europe where she hopes to understand who her sister (Faith was eight years older) was and why she took her life. As is true for most coming of age journeys, the self Phoebe comes to know is her own.
Ms. Egan prose immerses you in Phoebe, in her thoughts and her emotions. Phoebe travels the places her sister did in the months before her death and the each locale is vividly described, tinctured by Phoebe’s slow understanding of who she is. Halfway through the book, in Munich, Phoebe finds her sister’s old boyfriend, Wolf. The Invisible Circus isn’t a love story, but Phoebe’s and Wolf’s relationship is mesmerizing to read.
Readers who expect the modern storytelling Ms. Egan utilized to great effect in The Keep and in Welcome to the Goon Squad will not find that here. Phoebe tells (though the book is not a first person narrative) her story straightforwardly. The Invisible Circus is an elegant novel about love and loss. It remains one of my favorite books.