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You could be fooled by the way this dark, gorgeous new novel begins. In a cozy moment from a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, a mother welcomes a bear into her home. She tells her two daughters, Snow-white and Rose-red, that he means no harm. All is friendly and playful and warm.

But Julia Phillips’ BEAR is no comforting fantasy. Her protagonists, sisters Sam (for Samantha) and Elena, 28 and 29 --- born 13 months apart, their respective fathers never named --- live with their ailing mother in a tumble-down house on San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington State. (The unusual, stunningly evoked location is somewhat reminiscent of Phillips’ much-praised first novel, DISAPPEARING EARTH, set on Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and one of the New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2019.) They work in service-sector hell: Sam at the snack bar on the ferry, Elena at the golf club. They’re deeply in debt. All is grim and hard and indifferent.

It’s been this way for the last 10 years, as their mother got sicker and sicker with a disease caused by the chemicals used in her longtime nail-salon job. As kids, though, the girls felt that they really did live in a fairy tale: princesses ruling over an idyllic natural realm. They watched for whales, picked berries, communed with local deer and foxes, butterflies and bees. “Their world seemed enchanted, a paradise.” Their mother was youthful and pretty and fun --- “the woman they wanted to grow up to be” --- even if one of her male friends turned out to be abusive. And Sam, the younger sister who narrates the book, believes that someday she and Elena will escape. Although the house is “a 1979 vinyl-sided nightmare,” the land it sits on is valuable. The problem: They can’t sell it until their mother dies, an event both hoped for and dreaded.

"Phillips’ writing, as it was in DISAPPEARING EARTH, is marvelous.... But the language isn’t just lyrical; Phillips is also brilliant at evoking the texture and tedium of Sam’s thankless job...and the agony of their mother’s decline."

Meanwhile, it is Sam and her family against the world. She avoids emotional connection in favor of casual sex with a deckhand on the ferry; only her relationship with her sister counts. “Nothing matched an older sibling’s constancy…. Elena had been beside Sam since before birth and would be there until everything was done.”

Into this thicket of anguish and intimacy comes an intruder, a mammoth grizzly bear that is both a wild animal and a mythic, even romantic presence. First sighted by Sam swimming alongside the ferry, it then leaves evidence of its presence near the house --- “a heap of speckled feces,” the stink of “meat, fur, oil, earth” --- and finally shows up at their front door. It’s astonishingly huge, “as big as three men.” At first, both Sam and Elena are scared but also thrilled. The encounter feels “like they were little kids at play again. How strange --- how magical. How grand.”

But then Sam gets frightened. The bear has lingered in their neighborhood, killing livestock on nearby farms, and it has begun approaching her sister as she walks home from the golf club. Elena encourages it by calling out and offering food. It comes to her on the path “as gentle as a suitor,” she says, sounding like a lovestruck maiden in a fairy tale. The bear is “a visitor from someplace enchanted. A vision of the mysterious world.” Elena is fearless. The bear makes her feel utterly alive. And Sam is terribly afraid that she is risking her life.

Sam, of course, as the storyteller, is at the heart of BEAR. We see everything through the eyes of this spiky, tender, impulsive, deeply ambivalent young woman. She is not a reliable narrator, but she is an incredibly compelling one. Accustomed to the steadiness of her older sister, Sam is rocked by Elena’s obsession with the bear. She flirts with contacting the authorities --- including a sympathetic but no-nonsense Fish & Wildlife biologist and bear expert --- but she’s too much of an angry outsider to take their advice or accept their help. Instead, she becomes increasingly disturbed by the sense that Elena is moving away from their “long and precious sisterhood.”

When, toward the end of the novel, Elena reveals two dramatic, life-changing secrets, Sam realizes that she and her older sister no longer share the same dream of freedom. Finally, she enlists the help of a neighbor with a dog --- and a gun --- and takes matters into her own hands, with disastrous results.

Phillips’ writing, as it was in DISAPPEARING EARTH, is marvelous. The bear’s “beautiful yellow eyes,” its paws “the size of a dinner plate,” and the “golden-brown richness” of its fur make its seductiveness plausible. Their mother “had Elena’s deep-set eyes, heavy eyelids, pale hair, and Sam’s mouth. She had split herself up, divided her own face, to make them.” But the language isn’t just lyrical; Phillips is also brilliant at evoking the texture and tedium of Sam’s thankless job (“Brew the coffee. Dump the grounds. Restock the sugar packets. Get through her shift”), and the agony of their mother’s decline. The scene where Sam helps her go to the toilet is excruciating, heartbreaking and powerful.

The one question I have about the book is its pacing. Over and over we hear about the sisters’ “magical” childhood, surrounded by nature; their dazzling mom; their daily hardships compared with the privileged neighbors, ferry passengers and club members who surround them. The detail piles up, and family history is filled in, yet the first two-thirds of the book feels curiously static. There’s a lot of angst but little forward movement until about 100 pages from the end, when things turn eventful, and tragic.

At that point, BEAR does seem to move into different territory. There’s a sense of slow-motion inevitability about what happens, a suspicion that there was no scenario in which these women would find an easy way out. So it feels right that in the last few pages, we come full circle. Evoking the sisterly fable with which the book began, Sam puts her beloved Elena back into a fairy tale. Half lament, half fantasy, it’s an uncanny twist on happily ever after.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on June 29, 2024

by Julia Phillips

  • Publication Date: June 25, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth
  • ISBN-10: 0525520430
  • ISBN-13: 9780525520436