Book Review: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

Publisher: Constable Robinson
Selected Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78033-122-5
Published: 2012 [1995]
No. of Pages: 356
Price: £7.99

I received The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan from The Inner Circle, a programme started by Book Oxygen to help publishers communicate with readers and gauge their opinions of new releases – kind of like a reading forum that publishers can consult about their books.

I did enjoy The Invisible Circus, but I also had a few issues with it, as I will list below…

The blurb immediately reminded me of Pink Hotel by Anne Stothard which I read on holiday and wasn’t that enamoured with so that probably wasn’t a good start. It was another tale of a young girl on a search to find herself by imitating a dead relative and trying to bring them to life again by walking in their footsteps. Both of the plots even involve entanglements with former lovers of their dead relatives, not sure what the obsession with that is, as if it’s a way of trying to get closer to someone by becoming close to the people who loved them.

From the blurb…

“Faith was a beautiful, idealistic hippie who died in Italy in 1970. In order to find out the truth about Faith’s life and death, Phoebe retraces her sister’s steps from San Francisco across Europe, a quest which yields both complex and disturbing revelations about family, love and Faith’s lost generation.”

I got a bit annoyed with this constant glorification of Phoebe’s big sister Faith, who was found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Italy. Phoebe has such an idealistic view of the past, thinking back on her sister’s involvement in the hippie movement, getting involved in protests and taking new, experimental drugs. Phoebe always has the overwhelming feeling that she has missed out on something, that nothing real or important is happening to her in her life, evident right from the beginning when she turns up for a festival only to be told that it had been the day before and she has missed it.

She glamourises Faith and the hippie generation she was part of, feeling that she could never experience anything as authentic as that, that her life is just a mere shadow of the living that her sister did. She clings on to visions and memories and feels let down when they aren’t what she expected them to be – for example, when driving through Germany she sees a castle that she feels she knows, and when she finds out it is the castle used by Disney in their animations, she tries to ignore its existence.

Phoebe is reclusive, living in Faith’s shadow, sleeping in her bedroom, trying on her clothes and hoarding her possessions. I felt sorry for Phoebe and her lack of self-esteem, constantly feeling that she cannot live up to her sister. Her feelings of insignificance are highlighted by the accounts of Faith – while in Paris she had climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower and unleashed bags of white feathers which drifted down to the street. Phoebe is mesmerised by this, but frustrated by what she feels is her own inadequacy:

“Feathers, Phoebe thought, searching in vain for some moment of her own that could rival the beauty and mystery of Faith’s act. She felt a disappointment so familiar it was almost comfort.”

What I did like about the novel was Phoebe’s own journey, getting to know herself and really forming an idea of herself as an individual, experiencing independence and love for the first time, becoming more than just the little sister who got left behind. I also liked Egan’s style and her ability to capture moments from the past and how things always seem different at the time compared to later when you look back on them. I really like the description one of Faith’s friends gives to Phoebe about their youth in the late ’60s:

“…in a way we were nostalgic for it even while it happened. I think it had to do with constantly watching ourselves, on drugs, the whole out-of-body thing, but also on TV, in the papers. We were news. Whatever we did felt so big, so unbelievably powerful, almost like it was happening in retrospect. I’ve never felt anything like that, before or since. It wasn’t real life. Which I guess is what made it great.”

I would really like to read more of her books – any tips? I’ve heard good things about A Visit from the Goon Squad but, I know it sounds daft, I don’t like the title and it really puts me off it! Has anyone read it?

If you fancy joining The Inner Circle, head over to Book Oxygen. I have had two free books sent to me already! The next review for Book Oxygen will be of Hélene Grémillon’s The Confidant.


Filed under Book Reviews

2 responses to “Book Review: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

  1. I did not expect to like A Visit from the Goon Squad and it blew me away (in a good way). My review is here:
    I have picked up a copy of her novel The Keep and hope to read it soon.

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