Gregory Baird's Reviews > I See You Everywhere

I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass
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's review
Sep 20, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: 2008-booklist, arc, fiction-literature, family
Read in September, 2008

“You can’t predict what lasts.”

When it comes to getting at the heart of complex human relationships, Julia Glass is something of an expert. Three Junes, her debut novel, claimed the National Book Award back in 2002 for its soaring portrayal of the McLeod family in all of its complicated, quintessentially human glory. There are some who scoff at the apparent simplicity of it, but I would argue that they have overlooked the careful craftsmanship that went into such an intricate, if subdued, novel.

Her second novel, The Whole World Over, was something of a disappointment for me. Where Junes had felt spot-on and unerringly sympathetic, The Whole World Over felt like it was trying too hard, and not succeeding. Its cast was too sprawling, its emotion too cloying, and its page count too long for such a meandering narrative. The conclusion was top-notch, but not necessarily worth slogging through the rest of the book to get to.

So it was with trepidation that I picked up I See You Everywhere, her third novel. My hesitation started with the plot; it examines the drastically different lives of two sisters – a premise fraught with cliché. Countless writers have mined the same territory ever since Jane Austen did it so well in her classic Sense and Sensibility. It seems, at first, that nothing will be different here. We have elder sister Louisa representing sense. She’s responsible, intelligent, and too tightly wound to really enjoy the beauty of life (which is ironic because she makes her career in the art world). Then there’s free-spirited Clem taking on the role of sensibility. She’s earthy, moody, emotional, fiercely determined and yet seemingly care-free – in every sense the yin to her sister’s yang. They are “as different as white chocolate and seaweed, the Milky Way and a tropical reef.”

Starting in 1980, when both girls are in their early twenties, and progressing on to 2005, the sisters take turns narrating their story. The first hundred pages or so are dully predictable, particularly marred by the sense that Glass is far more enamored of Clem than she is of Louisa. In the first chapter Louisa comes across as startlingly unlikable, an uptight fuss-budget who only attends her great-aunt’s funeral to lay claim to a broach she coveted as a child. Her short temper and mean-spirited jabs at her sister make it seemingly impossible that one could ever find her even remotely sympathetic, especially in contrast to Clem, who comes across as warm and cuddly – a wee bit self-involved, yes, but deeply caring in many respects. Glass seems to admire Clem’s free spirit and wandering attentions. Indeed, the majority of Glass’ lavish description is devoted to Clem. She’s the one who inherited the “daring gene,” the cynic who would rather “be pleasantly surprised than fatally disappointed,” the nomad whose spirit is destined to be “dispersed but never contained.” Louisa just can’t compete, even when subsequent chapters make her a much more likable and sympathetic character.

But there is a marked shift in the second half of the book, which sheds cliché and takes a startling turn toward the dark. Slowly but surely it becomes apparent that it is actually Louisa that Glass sees as the more noble creature. Less interesting, perhaps, but better prepared for the world – even when it seems determined to overlook her in favor of her more glamorous sister.

In one chapter Clem describes herself thusly: “I’m not afraid of the dark, of heights or thunderstorms or solitude. What I’m afraid of is a particular kind of pointlessness. Fear of futility. Futiliphobia.” What Glass explores are the consequences of that fear in a person as determined (reckless?) as Clem, who literally wanders the earth without allowing herself to grow roots anywhere, to become attached to anything.

But what Glass is really exploring is the fragility of what ties us all together. As sisters, Clem and Louisa share a lifelong bond – even when separated by thousands of miles, in arguments and in times of joy. They frustrate each other, amuse each other, and much more – but mostly they rely on each other. But how lasting is that bond? How deeply is it ingrained, and can it be let go?

As in Three Junes, Glass excels at character study here. A novel that could easily have succumbed to pointlessness and banality ends up soaring, all thanks to her prodigious gifts when it comes to characterization. If only the first hundred pages weren’t weak in comparison to the rest of the novel.

Still, it pleases me to say that Glass has rebounded from The Whole World Over and finally written a novel that is, in my opinion, Junes-worthy.

Grade: B+

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