Phoebe thought, Faith died young and I’ve done nothing but admire her for it, but I don’t want to die – I don’t want to! Her thoughts pounding away like machine-gun fire: I don’t want to die I don’t want to die I want everything back the way it was before I hate this please God if I can just come down please God if I can just have back what I had before. But that’s exactly what you didn’t want, said a different voice, you’ve spent your life longing to throw it away. And Phoebe knew this was so. [location 2939]Jennifer Egan's first novel was published in 1995, and recently reissued as a result of A Visit from the Goon Squad winning the Pulitzer Prize.
The Invisible Circus, set in 1978, has three parts. In the first, Phoebe is living with her mother in San Francisco, mourning her dead sister Faith (who fell from rocks at an Italian beauty spot: accidentally?) and her dead failed-artist father, still feeling second-best. It's as though the deaths of the two people closest to her have frozen her somehow.
The middle part of the novel concerns Phoebe's trip to Europe. Using Faith's postcards as an itinerary, Phoebe attempts to retrace her sister's last months. She still feels she's living in her sister's shadow, and embarks on a series of reckless encounters; tripping out in Paris, escaping a drug-den in Amsterdam, wandering around London high on insomnia.
In the final third of the novel, an exhausted Phoebe unexpectedly encounters Faith's ex-boyfriend Wolf, now engaged to a nice German woman. They take her in, and Wolf -- who now, since it's no longer the Sixties, goes by his real name of Sebastian -- ends up accompanying Phoebe to the place where her sister died. Faced with Phoebe's naivete, he can't help but reveal the truth about the last few months of Faith's life. (One gets the sense that it's a relief for him to finally be able to talk to someone about the events of 1970.)
Part of Phoebe's innocence comes from living in a pre-9/11 world, in which terrorism was something that happened to other people, in other places. I wonder how differently Egan would treat the story -- assuming the dates stayed the same -- if she was writing it now?
The Invisible Circus is a twisted love-song to the 1960s. I found Wolf's description of hippie idealism more vibrant than Phoebe's washed-out life and craving for excitement. She does find excitement: there are some nauseatingly evocative episodes during her Grand Tour. (Also at least one niggling error: we didn't have pound coins in the UK in 1978 ['the coins are heavy like real gold', loc. 2025]). Certainly by the time she flies back to the States she's no longer the pallid child she was at the beginning of the novel: she's starting to discover who she wants to be, and she's on her way to becoming that woman.