Last year I read Jennifer Egan’s latest novel A Visit From the Goon Squad and loved it—a lot. So when I saw her very first novel, The Invisible Circus, sitting in a used bookstore for a few bucks, I grabbed it, eager to see where she started as a writer. It’s an impressive debut, but definitely not without growing pains. While the writing already displays the gorgeous fluidity and feel for ambiance that she hones in her later work, in Invisible Circus she too often gives in to certain florid impulses. The result is a book that is both historically and atmospherically rich, yet sometimes lags with indulgent stretches.
Egan’s protagonist is Phoebe, an 18 year old girl living in San Francisco in the late 70s. She lives alone with her mother; her father died when she was young, her older brother is now a wealthy entrepreneur, and her older and much idolized sister, Faith, died in a freak fall (or suicide, it’s unclear at first) while sightseeing in Italy seven years before. Feeling lonely, stifled, and generally disconnected from her life, Phoebe impulsively defers her college acceptance and takes off for Europe with the plan to follow Faith’s path (known because of a string of postcards that Faith sent home from abroad).
The rest of the book unspools in many ways like a classic coming-of-age story, but Egan makes it interesting by linking Phoebe up with Wolf, Faith’s boyfriend in high school and at the time of her death. Through Wolf’s reminisces of Faith and the flower-power era they were wrapped up in, Egan digs into a lot of weighty material: a person’s seeming incandescence in their younger sibling’s eyes contrasted with the kind of person they really were, set against the backdrop of the late 60s/early 70s and the shifting promises of the hippie generation.
Much of the narrative arc holds together, despite some contrived situations, on the strength of Egan’s writing. She brings European cities and ruins (and one terrifying acid trip) to life with detail and real feeling. Phoebe’s interspersed memories of her father are perhaps the strongest parts of the book: poignant, vivid, and layered with multiple significances—the young, innocent Phoebe’s image of family is now nestled beneath the more discerning gaze of her adolescence.
What kept me from enjoying the book more was Phoebe herself. I found her passive-aggressive, annoyingly naïve, and consistently self-occupied. To be fair, that’s a decent description of many 18 year-olds girls (I was one not too long ago); it just made her desperation to find a sense of self harder to empathize with. But overall, some really beautiful writing and an interesting look back into the psyche of the flower-children and those who traced their steps.