Surely Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus (1995) is too accomplished to be a first novel? Apparently not: Egan’s debut is as scintillating as her later work, an incisive and stirring drama. It follows the journeys (both physical and emotional) of Phoebe O’Connor, the youngest daughter of a fractured Bay Area family. Phoebe spontaneously flies off to Europe in 1978, motivated by a rift with her mother, grieving for her deceased father, and her own youthful disaffection with the stagnant aimlessness of her own life. But foremost in her mind is a desire to solve the mystery surrounding the death of her restless, idealistic older sister Faith, who perished during a similar European walkabout. Phoebe has long lived in Faith’s shadow, but her journey through Europe—from London to Amsterdam, Germany to Italy—may finally lay that haunting dynamic to rest.
The Invisible Circus is a moving coming-of-age tale that deploys effective period detail, effortless prose, and insightful characterization. Phoebe is a relatable protagonist whose youthful discontent and frustration is rendered sympathetic, even when she’s at her most unreasonable. It’s easy to cheer for her as she follows a trail of bread crumbs through the past to uncover the truth behind her sister’s tragic death, and her own obsessive relationship with the past. The novel is more evidence (as if any were needed) of Egan’s brilliant storytelling powers.