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The Invisible Circus

3.50  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,965 Ratings  ·  421 Reviews
In Jennifer Egan’s highly acclaimed first novel, set in 1978, the political drama and familial tensions of the 1960s form a backdrop for the world of Phoebe O’Connor, age eighteen. Phoebe is obsessed with the memory and death of her sister Faith, a beautiful idealistic hippie who died in Italy in 1970. In order to find out the truth about Faith’s life and death, Phoebe ret ...more
Unknown Binding, 352 pages
Published March 9th 2001 by Pan Macmillan (first published December 1st 1994)
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SK *The Cupcake Queen*
3.5 Stars!

I have been working my way through all of Jennifer Egan's books. Because let's face it this woman knows how to write. She depresses me with her beautiful and profound writing. And I absolutely adore her for this.

As for this one, I liked it. I stared long and hard at her beautiful, poetic words but her main character bugged me a lot. I never understood her goals. I mean, I did but I just didn't get the consequence of it. She was extremely naive and then she took a trip to Europe to f
Apr 21, 2009 Kate rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction, favorites
Egan's freshman novel, about a girl who, along with her widowed mother, is frozen in time since the suicide of her hippie sister the decade before. Set in 1970s San Francisco and Europe, where the protagonist traces her sister's footsteps. Started off a bit rough but it's smooth now, and quite vivid. One scene on the beach with the sisters and the dying father made me put the book down for a few days -- the narrator's childhood memory was so real and painful. By the end, Phoebe has shed a great ...more
Jul 31, 2011 Jennifer rated it liked it
I like Jennifer Egan's writing, in its fluidity. The story itself often makes me feel like I am swimming in words. But sometimes, I feel like I am being deceived - the characters only appear to have complexity and vulnerability. It is like watching a movie that you like because it has a lovely way of unfolding, but there is nothing that will linger, afterwards. I feel often like the language is much more meaningful than the meaning it is trying to (or not trying to) convey.
If you're coming to The Invisible Circus after reading A Visit from the Goon Squad or The Keep, as I did, you're likely to be disappointed. It's different kind of book, more straightforward, with all the earmarks of a novel whose protagonist, Phoebe, is destined to lose her innocence.

“The dullness of Phoebe’s bedroom met her like a blow: polar bear wallpaper, rows of faded stuffed animals, a wicker chair that crackled when you sat in it.”

After graduating from high school, Phoebe decides to trave
Nov 08, 2015 James rated it liked it
I think Jennifer Egan is a tremendous writer. Her first book shows this talent to great effect, the first part of the book is a brilliantly sad exploration of families and the best of intentions going awry. It's smart, clever and wonderfully well written, each line packs an incredible emotional punch. It then all takes a turn into this odd love story which left me deeply unmoved. If you liked her other books, it's interesting to see how it all started.
Oct 09, 2007 Offbalance rated it did not like it
After a promising start, this book failed to go anywhere. I lost all patience with the annoying main character, and really had no interest in her quest to find "answers" about her sister after awhile. Her naivete grew wearying, and I longed for the ability to reach between the pages and slap her.

Egan has a gift for description, but needs work on her pacing. Perhaps that improved with her subsequent works.
Nov 02, 2011 Rosie rated it did not like it
This book was recommended by a friend. I see now that it is in part 'her story', i.e. dead father, suicide sister, etc. so I'm not surprised that she enjoyed it. I, however, feel that I learned absolutely nothing from this book. The main character is an immature young woman, self-indulgent, self-referential, passive-aggressive in her behavior, not particularly likeable. The dead sister's boyfriend is a typical predatory male of the 'I couldn't help myself' variety, prepared to hit the road on a ...more
Feb 18, 2009 Selene rated it liked it
Finished this book at 1AM. Jennifer Egan is such a beautiful writer, it' almost inconceivable. It is perhaps problematic to read "The Keep" prior to her other novels, because "The Keep" is so perfect, what with the castle and the baroness and the prison writing program and the descriptions of really good food. "The Invisible Circus" had lost revolutionaries, which are like kryptonite to me--I'm powerless to resist their appeal (is kryptonite appealing to those it renders powerless?). But also, i ...more
Nov 03, 2007 Sarah rated it liked it
Shelves: booksread2007
I love Jennifer Egan. I read her books in reverse order (starting with 'The Keep', then 'Look At Me', and then 'Invisible Circus'). I love that she explores different themes in each book -- all three are very different. 'Invisible Circus' gets a firm 3 stars from me. I loved the overall feeling of living in the world during a time of great change, but not being able to identify just what it is that is happening even though you still want to be a part of it. Still, she uses a lot of exposition an ...more
Dec 28, 2015 Yuckamashe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love books about the hippie generation. Not the political side as much as the freedom and adventure! I am obsessed with the idea of letting go and experiencing life. Which I am too rational to do myself. This book shows the paradox between the sheer beauty and danger of that crazy time period. It's about sisters and the tug of war between past and present.
Mar 12, 2009 Marie rated it liked it
Phoebe lives most of her life reeling from the grief of having lost her father and then her older sister, Faith, before she reached her adolescence.

Her sister was a flower child and fell to her death from a cliff in an Italian seaside town. At the age of 18, Phoebe decides to pursue her sister's ghost through Europe to see if she can decipher what really happened to her.

She explores the shadows of the 60s and the flower children and skirts the memories of her childhood. This book is an excellent
Ayelet Waldman
I think I read this years and years ago but I remembered nothing. Why is it that I retain so little, even from books like this one, which I enjoyed? I’m so envious of people who can recall with amazing accuracy everything that they’ve ever read.
Jan 13, 2011 Elisabeth rated it really liked it
This is a wonderfully descriptive book, set in the late 70s. Phoebe has just finished high school and sets out on an impromptu quest to find out more about how her sister died. She heads to Europe, following the path her sister made years before.

The story is rich, both historically and in terms of her own and her sisters internal/emotional struggles. I imagine that most who read this would be able to relate on some level to the insecurities and difficulties that the characters face. And, if not,
Angela Andrewes
Dec 03, 2013 Angela Andrewes rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pat Conroy is quoted as having said about Egan's precocious debut that 'if there were any justice in the world, no one would be allowed to write a first novel of such beauty and accomplishment.' I completely agree! I wouldn't say 'The Invisible Circus' is perfect, but it comes very damn near. It's a story about love and loss, about growing up and about all those significant things in life. It circumnavigates the globe and transcends time, taking its young heroine from San Francisco to the mounta ...more
Apr 24, 2013 Diane rated it it was ok
Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite authors. Like many readers, I was wowed by "A Visit from the Goon Squad" (2010), but I was dazzled just as much by the novel that preceded it, "Look at Me" (2001), whose intricate plot is part thriller, part social satire, and part multi-layered identity drama. In addition to being stylistically unique, the narratives in both these previous books shift around in time, even looking ahead into the near future. "Look at Me" was even uncannily prescient about Face ...more
Mar 04, 2012 Ken rated it really liked it
And unbelievable first novel, yet I was only familiar with Egan's later works, and was anticipating the audacious intellectual flights of fancy of, LOOK AT ME, or the intricately and bizarrely plotted story-line of, A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD. However, THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS is a very solid and readable examination of a family, and how the mood and tone of the radical sixties changed them forever. Although, the focus is on this particular family dynamic, the book also operates as a metaphor to de ...more
Kit Fox
Like, oh my god. This soooo reminds me of the time I deferred my enrollment at U.C. Berkeley to go traipsing around Europe in an attempt to retrace the footsteps of my crazybeautiful older sister who's untimely suicide from an Italian sightseeing spot served as the catalyst for my burgeoning maturity and stuff. And I slept with people. (Sorry.) Just a pretty obvious "good but not great" first novel from a young author; super heavy on extraneous descriptions of buildings/cafes/European streets th ...more
May 28, 2007 Christine rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Flower child wanna-bes
Shelves: novels, dark-radicals
The protagonist, a teenager living in San Fran in the early 70s, has lived her entire life in the shadow of her flower-child older sister, who has long been dead due to mysterious circumstances.

In what turned out to be an extremely satisfying coming-of-age novel, she goes to find out what happened, travelling to Europe in her sisters footsteps and encountering bohemian characters (and sometimes tragic burnouts, junkies and users) from her sister's life. The mystery's resolution was surprising t
Mar 17, 2016 Julie rated it really liked it
Shelves: 70s-era-fiction
Jennifer Egan's first novel is far more conventional than 2010's Visit from the Good Squad, the only other Egan I've read. Still, its built from what I have gathered are Egan's obsessions--young girls, counterculture(s), and seemingly inevitable self-destruction. All of this is set in a bleary-eyed, fog-laced San Francisco, circa '78. The narrative traces a short history of the O'Connor family--especialy the two most charismatic figures in this family--the father, an ersatz artist, wannabe beat ...more
Sep 12, 2014 Meg rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So beautiful. The main character is terribly young and selfish, but the writing is gorgeous and the emotions so palpable it was impossible not to feel for her. If only in real life you could have that clarity of thought about what you’re experiencing at each moment. I cried my eyes out.
Martina Newhook
Feb 22, 2016 Martina Newhook rated it it was ok
A decent first novel. The problem with it is that the story is not very engaging even though it's packed with big themes and ideas. The reason? Phoebe, the main character simply isn't very interesting, nor are her motivations compelling enough to drive the narrative. She's practically a cliche of what we think it is to be 18 years old.

The language isn't enough to elevate it to greatness. The good news is that Egan went on to write better and better books, eventually earning a Pulitzer. It seems
Sep 23, 2015 Dabney rated it it was amazing
Jennifer Egan’s a storied writer. She won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011 for Welcome to the Goon Squad. Her writings appear regularly in the New York Times. I’ve enjoyed all of Ms. Egan’s books but my favorite is her first The Invisible Circus. I recommended it my 18 year old niece this summer and, after she returned it–she loved it–I read it again.

The book is set in 1978. Phoebe O’Connor has just graduated from high school and is set to attend Berkeley in the fa
Sep 03, 2012 Ryan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Pretty disappointing. I loved Good Squad and thought her style was really interesting so I randomly picked another one by her. It seemed pretty interesting at first, with an interesting premise of a girl living in the shadow of her dead sister – a flower child of the 60s – (and father) and deciding to go to Europe to follow her final trek. However, it just seemed that the entire story, built on and revolving around a character who is never alive, really bogs down. The character Phoebe doesn’t re ...more
This is Jennifer Egan’s first novel, and from what I could gather, her suceeding works were somewhat bolder and more unconvential in their treatment of the novel form than this one, which is basically a straightforward realistic narrative about a girl growing up and stepping out of the shadow of her older sister who had been determining all her previous life.

The Invisible Circus has “first novel” written all over it: While it is very cleverly constructed, there is a certain awkwardness in the wa
Jul 05, 2008 Brooke rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2008, general-fiction
All of the quotes on the front and back cover promised this would be a "brilliant," "mesmerizing," and "emotional" book about an 18-year-old who backpacks across Europe tracing her dead older sister's path to the place in Italy where she committed suicide.

Instead, I found it dull, predictable, and irritating. The main character, Phoebe, is woefully naive to the point where I had absolutely no sympathy for her. I wanted to smack her and yell at her to grow up. The plot twist at the beginning Par
Nov 08, 2013 TinHouseBooks rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-we-love
Victoria Savanh (Tin House Books Intern): A few months ago I picked up all of Jennifer Egan’s novels, beginning with Look at Me and now ending with her first novel, The Invisible Circus. It’s 1978 and Phoebe leaves foggy San Francisco to retrace her romantic hippie sister Faith’s path through Europe, eight years after Faith died in Italy. The Invisible Circus confronts memory and grief, the end of the 60s, and strikes a perfect balance between nostalgia and reality. While Phoebe’s insecurity is ...more
Aug 31, 2012 Nina rated it it was amazing
i was so blown away by 'a visit from the goon squad' that i wanted to read egan's entire oeuvre. this is her first book and it is amazing. i really fell in love with the writing and the characters. i think it's the hardest thing to create flawed characters and make you love them. the relationships between everyone in the family are really heartbreaking. it made me think how hard it is to have kids and not depend on them for your happiness. there's a fine line between being proud of them and bein ...more
Jul 23, 2012 Damian rated it it was ok
It's not A Visit from the Goon Squad--not by a long shot. Sensitively written in many parts, a little self-indulgent in others. In my creative writing class, a friend of mine used to call things like this "fantasy stories"--the romantic trip through Europe (where everything seems mysteriously paid for), the wildly passionate affair with a sensitive (slightly) older man, the drug- and wine-fueled (somewhat strained) self-discovery.

Although Phoebe's never-ending gaze into her own psyche seems auth
Jed (John) Edwards
Mar 17, 2011 Jed (John) Edwards rated it really liked it
The title refers partly to a Diggers' sponsored happening in late 1960s San Francisco, which was a strong influence on the book's characters Wolf and Faith. Faith is the dead older sister of the main character Phoebe, who, after graduating from high school in 1978, flies off to Europe following the trail of Faith's postcards from eight years before. The title also refers to the reverberations from the '60s felt as inner turmoil in younger brothers and sisters who weren't quite old enough to be t ...more
Apr 18, 2010 Haley rated it it was ok
The beginning of Egan's novel quickly engages the reader and surpringsly connects you to the main character Phoebe, who in real life you may never notice. While I thought Egan did a good job of going back and forth in time with narrative, beautifully describing parts of Eurpoe and San Fransico and depicting the rough waters of adolescent in the shadow of a larger than life older sibling the story seems to fall apart midway through. The story takes on an almost forced turn with Phoebe's love stor ...more
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Jennifer Egan was born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and St John's College, Cambridge.

She is the author of three novels, The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, a finalist for the National Book Award, and the bestselling The Keep, and a short story collection, Emerald City. She has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper's, McSweeney's and
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“And sitting there, sea drifting in around them, Wolf had understood for the first time what kind of life he wanted to live with Faith. Maybe they wouldn't rise up into the sky the way he'd thought, maybe the real thing was doing what his parents had done, pay the rent, read the paper, hell, maybe that was the dare. To live--day in, day out. Just live.” 4 likes
“They sat in silence. 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 a comfort.” 3 likes
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