Review: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

20 Books of Summer: Book 3

When I culled my bookshelves at the start of the summer, Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus shifted into and out of the “keep” pile. I’d read Part One several times and loved it, but consistently lost interest somewhere in Part Three. I didn’t want to keep a book that had landed in the DNF pile several times already, but I had such fond memories of Part One. And now, at last, I have finished it. The ending did not live up to the promise of Part One.

This review will contain spoilers for the end of the book.

Part One

The first part of The Invisible Circus is exceptional and is one of my favorite things by Jennifer Egan. It’s set in 1978. Phoebe is fixated on the memories of her late sister, Faith. She lives at home with her mother, and their house is fairly quiet, with Faith’s old room left largely untouched and their late father’s paintings gathering dust. Phoebe is obsessed with these losses, and her impressions of her sister and father are heavily idealized. This leads, perhaps inevitably, to awkwardness with her mother and older brother when they’re more willing to move forward and take a more honest view of the past.

The way Egan treats loss is compelling. She writes about more than someone not being present and the things they might have said or done if alive; she makes their absence into a tangible presence that’s simultaneously tragic and disquieting. While Faith was alive, Phoebe felt consistently overshadowed by her personality and easy confidence. Faith embraced the wildness and instability of the sixties, and nothing frightened her. Before her death in Italy, she backpacked around Europe. In contrast, Phoebe can’t even order a drink (with a fake ID) in a bar:

Phoebe sat on a stool and ordered a martini. She’d never had one before, only the residue left on olives her father used to feed her at the country club, a vile, medicinal shock she’d endured as the price of the olive’s deliciousness. “On the rocks or straight up?” the bartender asked.
“On the rocks.” She liked saying it. The time had come for a hard, different life. Spotting a cup of pickled onions on the bar, Phoebe added, “With onions, too.”
“You want a Gibson,” the bartender said.
“A martini.”
“With onions it’s a Gibson.”
“Oh. Then no onions.”
“I mean,” he laughed, “I can make you a Gibson. I’m just saying.”
Phoebe’s face filled with heat. “Okay.”
“Okay what? A Gibson?”
She nodded. A certain weight of attention seemed to be gathering upon her, but she didn’t look around. (75)

As someone who once ordered a drink “straight up, on the rocks,” I have a certain amount of sympathy for Phoebe in this scene, but she’s so brutally self-conscious that there’s little chance she’ll ever be like her freewheeling, hippie sister. When her fake ID can’t get her a drink—not even a Gibson—she’s advised to try another bar that doesn’t look closely at IDs, but:

Phoebe did not go to Paddy O’Shaughnessy’s, she went home and started to pack. A determination had seized her: to flee the city, the country, her life. From the closet of her old room she yanked the backpack her mother had bought her for an eighth-grade trip to Yosemite, a hail of dust and pine needles raining down from its waterproof canvas. […] What could she do? She could vanish. (76)

Phoebe grabs the stack of postcards that Faith mailed from Europe and makes plans to retrace her sister’s steps. A grief-stricken person going to Europe to “find themselves” is such a trope that I rolled my eyes a little, but given Egan’s beautiful prose, I thought her version of finding oneself might be interesting. Which leads to Part Two.

Part Two

This is where the book started to lose its magic. It turns out that Phoebe was most interesting when living in her ghost-filled home and having slightly tense encounters with her mother and brother. Phoebe defines so much of herself by how she compares to her sister that there’s not much to her when she’s alone. Once she locks into the go-to-Europe-and-find-yourself path, the book becomes predictable and repetitive. Phoebe hopes she’ll be mistaken for Faith, looks for people who might have known Faith, and makes up stories to strangers about where Faith is now and what she’s doing, etc. The same note—the note of living in her sister’s shadow—is struck over and over and over. But still, the book is only half over, and change comes slowly even when backpacking though Europe . . .

Part Three

In a truly small-world coincidence, Phoebe runs into Faith’s ex-boyfriend, Wolf. Though Wolf has made a new life for himself in Germany, he gets pulled into Phoebe’s find-yourself quest and goes with her to the location of her sister’s death. It’s obvious to the reader but not at all obvious to Phoebe that Wolf knows more about Faith’s death than he has let on. (No, he didn’t kill her.) On the way to their destination, the book derails completely, with a 27-page sex scene—there are a few breaks when Phoebe and Wolf stare longingly at each other in restaurants before getting back to it—but pages 253-280 are pretty much just sex. I’m not a prude; I don’t object to sexual content in books, but 27 pages might be 26 pages too much.

And because this sextravaganza happens at a point when the book’s repetitiveness was grating on me, I almost put it down again, but page 280 was the farthest I’d ever read, so I couldn’t just quit. If, like me, you’re someone who kept putting this book down before reaching the Big Epiphany, here it is: Faith got involved with a terrorist group and put a bomb in the basement of a building. She hadn’t meant for anyone to be killed, but a janitor died. After learning about his death and the family he left behind, she committed suicide. Wolf was there when she died and knew everything that had happened, but never told anyone the details.

Part Four

While this section reads like an epilogue since it’s only 15 pages—12 less than the sex scene—it almost redeems the book. My main issue with this book isn’t that the coming-of-age, living-in-a-sibling’s-shadow, running-around-Europe clichés all blend into one big cliché (though they sort of do); it’s that the really well-written passages and solid character moments get watered down by the heavy-handed treatment of these themes. Egan’s writing is so lovely that it’s hard to suggest that whole paragraphs and pages belong on the cutting room floor, but they do.

The very brief epilogue with sparser writing is a nice corrective and accomplishes something interesting: Phoebe is remarkably unchanged from her travels.

Phoebe’s first week home was blessed with a certain novelty despite its disappointments, but as the second week passed, a numbing depression settled over her. Nothing had changed, and against the sameness of the city, her life within it, Phoebe’s time away—a lifetime until itself—seemed reduced to a brief, hallucinatory flash.

She began staying indoors, wandering the house or lying on her bed staring out the window, unaware of the passage of time. She slept and slept, and when she wasn’t asleep, she daydreamed about her journey. Phoebe saw herself cloaked in a golden haze, riding trains, waking up beside Wolf with fresh sunlight pouring over the bed—could she really have been there, done those things? Already it seemed far-fetched, an exotic wish. Even her worst times assumed, in retrospect, a powerful, moody allure. But Phoebe gave her present self no credit for them. On the contrary, the subject of her memories seemed another person altogether, to be admired, envied, measured against. (327-328)

Suddenly it seems like less of a problem that the book is so repetitive and Phoebe seems unwilling (incapable?) of looking at situations outside of herself. Part of what makes the beginning of the book so interesting is that even though it’s written through Phoebe’s perspective, it’s obvious to the reader that her mother is dating again before it’s obvious to Phoebe. She’s too mired in her own world with her own troubles, and never sees what’s around her. When she returns, she finds that the world didn’t wait for her to come back—Berkeley treated her request for a deferment as a withdrawal, her mother and brother are closer than ever, and she hurt them with her vanishing act. In a flush of jealousy that all this has happened, she wants to shock them with what she has learned about Faith but says nothing.

What was it about Faith that she’d wanted so badly to impart? It seemed to Phoebe now that she had never named it directly, even to herself. Was it Wolf’s having been present when she died? The terrorists? The dead man? But no, it was none of these. The truth was that her sister had killed herself. And everyone knew it. (334)

After all her travels, she has only arrived at what every other character in this novel already knows and accepts. She doesn’t have some secret knowledge; she has only caught up to everyone else. After so many tedious pages, I actually love how small this epiphany is. Maybe because it feels so true, somehow. As I get older and figure things out, when the triumphant feeling of Eureka! has passed, I’m often left with the feeling that I might have had the epiphany sooner if I’d paid more attention or focused less on my own perspective. I think this kind of catching-up style of epiphany is harder to write than an I’m-smarter-than-the-people-around-me epiphany, so Egan deserves a lot of credit here.

Overall: 2.9 (out of 5.0) I don’t recommend it, so it can’t get a 3.0 or above, but the writing is so lovely that it earns the highest possible rating.

Image credit: Goodreads

20 Books of Summer 2022

Previously on

  1. A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie
  2. Sphere by Michael Crichton

Read, review coming soon

  1. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  2. The Appointment by Herta Müller
  3. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
  4. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Currently reading

  1. Dune by Frank Herbert
  2. Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard
  3. A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Unread, review coming later

  1. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  2. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi
  3. The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
  4. Human Acts by Han Kang
  5. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  6. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  7. The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
  8. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  10. TBD

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