The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

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The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A re-issue of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jennifer Egan's debut novel tells the story of a young girl seeking to explore the death of her older sister. Set in the late 1970s it explores the differences in values of the previous generation but after a stunning opening, rather loses its punch and charm.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 368 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Corsair
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781780331225

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Set in 1978, 18-year old Phoebe is living with her mother in San Francisco. Her father died some years ago, before her elder sister, Faith, a charismatic idealist and true child of the 1960s left for Europe where she died in 1970. Faith was always her father's favourite, While Phoebe's older brother, Barry, is now a computer millionaire, on leaving high school Phoebe decides on a whim to follow her sister's path to Europe in the hope of finding what happened in Italy and to finally understand her beloved sister's actions.

Jennifer Egan is best known for her Pulitzer-winning 2011 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. The Pulitzer Prize is always one of the more random of literary prizes but Egan's book was fresh and entertaining, and while a bit tricksy in format, carried it off well. The Invisible Circus is not a new Egan book, but rather a re-issue of her debut novel, first published in 1995. It's a far more straightforward narration in style. While re-issuing early novels from prize winners makes sound commercial sense, the question remains as to whether the book merits this.

The Invisible Circus is in three parts (well, technically, four but the final part is only a few pages long and is more of a conclusion). The first deals with the situation of the family in San Francisco, Phoebe's feelings for her brother and mother and in particular of her mother's emerging relationship with a new man in her life. Phoebe clearly doesn't like change. It's a quite brilliant opening. The nuances of emotion are beautifully drawn and I was enthralled by the characters and the situation. Phoebe is an engaging character initially, a little naïve perhaps but innocent might be a better description. Clearly haunted by the loss of her sister, and to a lesser extent her father, the scene was set for a terrific story to develop.

Then in the second part, she heads to Europe and like Phoebe herself, sadly the book started to lose its way at an alarming pace from this point on. She follows her sister's path through Europe based on the postcards Faith sent home from London, Belgium, Paris, Germany and Italy. That could have been hugely interesting but Egan fails to evoke a sense of place and each reads more like an extract from a tourist guide, which was a huge disappointment. There she briefly and for no good reason discovers and loses God before experimenting with hard drugs. I confess that this is a bugbear of mine. There is little duller than the reading of characters' dreams in books but the reading of characters' drug trips is one of those things. Like dreams, they may be interesting to the originator, but seldom to a third party.

The third part deals with Phoebe finding out what happened to Faith when she discovers someone from Faith's past. While this should be the exciting conclusion, it is strangely dull in the telling. There's none of the vigour and charm of the first part here where it is so needed. Phoebe by now has become something of a cypher for the story rather than an interesting character in her own right, at least to me. Neither does she really seem to change that much as a result of her journey. Both American sisters experience the deviant vices of Europe (militant politics, alcohol, drugs, rampant sex) - one survives and one doesn't.

Part of the problem is that history has overtaken the book. Egan, who lives in New York, is writing pre-9/11 and while covering Europe in the late 1970s, terrorism is a factor in the form of the IRA, the Red Army and Baader Meinhof movements. Pre-9/11 terrorism was seen in the US as something that happened to other people over in little old Europe and elsewhere and this comes over in the writing style. My guess is that Egan would deal with this very differently if writing today. While it isn't fair to criticise the book itself for this, it is an issue if you are going to re-issue it in this way.

I think what Egan was trying to do was to look at what happened to the 1960s student generation and to contrast this with the generation that followed in the 1970s. To some extent, this is achieved but unfortunately, it doesn't really say that much about it. Apart from bomb threats in London shops and some bad clothing, there's not much that evokes the 1970s as I recall them.

At least some of my lukewarm feelings about the book come from the let down from the genuinely fantastic opening to the book. If it could have carried on at that pitch, it was five-star material. But it doesn't and while I can understand the urge to re-issue her earlier works, it pales besides A Visit from the Goon Squad. It's interesting to see where a writer has come from, but as a stand-alone, it's not a book I'd rush to recommend.

Our thanks to the kind people at Corsair for sending us this book.

Under no circumstances let this put you off A Visit From the Goon Squad though. You might also enjoy Wrecker by Summer Wood and Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas.

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