Jennifer Egan has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim for her stories and she deserves them. Words glide through her fingers and enter the pores like cool San Francisco fog. This, her first novel, is set in San Francisco and spins the tale of Phoebe, an 18-year-old who, eight years earlier, lost her older sister, Faith. Faith died in Europe, possibly a suicide, aged 17. Her father, an amateur artist, adored and painted her ceaselessly. She was the repository of his dreams. When she was a teen-ager, he died of a heart attack and Faith careened out of control, into increasingly crazy, violent situations. In Europe, Faith got into drugs and, as we find out, worse. Her family lost her.
My older sister, like the fictional Phoebe's, committed suicide. She was dead at 23. In a dreamlike way, as if one were looking into a pond, this novel reflects what I went through. After finishing it, I wished I'd read all those essays I was supposed to read in college about the purposes of fiction, how art can mirror life, or whatever. Then I could say this better: Fiction can give you a window into a world, a house, that you might never walk into on your own, widening your perceptions of an event or a character, like ripples going out from a stone. Or it can mirror life and make you see and understand things that are familiar to you in a dark and different way. Sometimes, because of your proximity to an experience, you cannot see it clearly. At first, it can crush you in a sensory overload. Fiction can give that experience distance and meaning. And sometimes, fiction can be more true to an experience than a straightforward 2-by-4 four account of, say, grief.
Phoebe's life makes no sense. Eight years after her sister died, she still feels abandoned, left, lost. Sleeping badly in Faith's room, she dreams. Phoebe's mother Gail has also abandoned her, by falling in love. Accepted to Berkeley, Phoebe has no desire to go. Working in a San Francisco cafe, she mulls over her flotsam life. Instead of college, clutching a collection of Faith's last postcards from Europe, Phoebe goes on an odyssey to solve the mystery of Faith's death. Did she jump, did she fall from the stone wall of a ruin in Corniglia, Italy?
In San Francisco, at the reunion of a '60s rally, a handsome young man tells Phoebe she reminds him of someone he used to know named Faith. "I'm her sister," she says, pleased at the resemblance. The man, nicknamed Catnip, turns out to be an old boyfriend of her big sister's. Lying, she tells him that she's going to Europe instead of college and suddenly realizes that's what she's going to do. In this way, the novel has the logic of a dream, or of life.
Phoebe's journey through Europe is harrowing. In Amsterdam she smokes hash with strange men and is almost raped. In Paris, on a bad acid trip, determined to see what it was like to take the drugs her sister took, Phoebe bangs her head against the thick glass of a youth hostel window. She's badly bruised. What she's seeking, the reader feels, is the right to feel her own life, a right that she'd lost eight years earlier when her sister died. Since then, Faith's sister has been a good, quiet student. She's gone through most of her days and nights in a kind of shutdown trance. As a teen-ager, kissed by boys, there was "always something she needed to remember like an undertow, a white door sealing her off, reminding her that her present life was unreal, without significance." She would withdraw, back off, go home, see her mother, sleep in Faith's room.
In keeping with her desire to hold onto her sense of Faith's superior, lost life, Phoebe spent her adolescence trying on her clothes, bell-bottoms, lace tops. In Europe, what Phoebe feels for the first time is real raw pain: her own. Faith's life doesn't suit her. "You look like her," Catnip told her. "I guess you hear that a lot."
"No, actually I don't," says Phoebe laughing. "Well, no one sees us together." Eight years earlier, Phoebe was 10.
Reading about Phoebe's adventures in Europe, searching out her sister's fate, you worry about her. Some of that worry lifts when Phoebe meets Wolf, another of her sister's old boyfriends. If you love someone deeply and hard, at an early age, and they die, it is like a stone dropped into a pond. It creates ripples. Sometimes people in those ripples find and circle one another all due to that lost drowned stone. Phoebe and Wolf are caught in ripples of desire so deep that they--even though he's engaged to a perfectly nice German woman named Carla--feel as if they're drowning. Hearing the story of her bad trip in Paris, Wolf refuses to let her go alone to Corniglia. What Phoebe discovers in Corniglia with Wolf literally changes her life, and his, and provides a satisfying ending for the reader. This is no easy ending, just one that comes out of the story and the characters, a supple use of language that snares you in a net of story.
A friend, whose child is named Phoebe, told me that the name means shining and comes from the Greek. The Greek sun god's name is Phoebus Apollo. Each permutation of this fictional Phoebe's flight and emergence into a shining creature, a young woman instead of a drooping semi-suicidal sleepwalker, felt true to me in a way that a nonfictional account of a similar series of events could not. So I salute Egan, and this, her wonderful first novel and I am grateful to her for letting me into her house.