I See You Everywhere

The story of Clem and Louisa Jardine, the mismatched sisters at the heart of Julia Glass’s intricate third novel, I See You Everywhere, covers 25 years. It takes just a few pages, though, to get the lay of the land. We meet Louisa, the careful and conscientious older sister, as she’s headed to Vermont in 1980 to claim a share of her great-aunt’s jewelry. Living unhappily in Santa Barbara, where she’s been dumped by a boyfriend and has failed to make good as a potter, Louisa can ill afford the trip. But the thought that her sister could claim the best of the booty spurs her on. Clem, after all, younger by four years, is their mother’s favorite. She’s a free spirit whose fearless forward rush through life has always made Louisa feel upstaged. No way Clem’s getting the best of Louisa this time.

Except she does. Louisa’s barely made a dent in her narrative when Clem chimes in. “If you’re going to hear Louisa’s version of what went on last summer, you will also be hearing mine. Louisa’s worst side is the one I call the Judge. ? la Salem witchcraft trials. There’s this look she gets on her face that tells the world and everyone in it how completely unworthy it and they are to contain or witness her presence.”

And so we’re off, Clem and Louisa taking turns revealing the shape and texture and relentless tension of their relationship. Though Clem’s assessment of Louisa sounds harsh, it’s hard not to agree with her. The rivalry between the sisters is mostly one-sided, and Glass does little to sugarcoat Louisa’s prickly nature. Here’s Louisa in the airplane, fending off the pain of her failed life in California: “?but I had no intention of letting Clem in on my angst. My plan was to never trust her again, never fall for her charms the way everyone else, especially men, seemed to do so ferverently.”

If you’ve read Glass’s earlier novel Three Junes, the landscape of I See You Everywhere will be familiar. There’s the dog-obsessed mother, the absentminded father, the world of art and money and Ivy League schools. Much of it is drawn from the author’s own life. Glass, a Yale grad and art student, turned to writing after cancer, divorce, and a sudden death in the family turned her 30s into a series of catastrophes. The structure’s like an old friend. Glass skips through time, a few years here, a few months there. She plays with the form, the novel often hovering on the brink of becoming a series of linked short stories.

Clem and Louisa couldn’t be more different. Clem’s charismatic, the kind of woman that people — especially men, as Louisa so sourly notes — want to be around. She’s also one of the lucky ones whose earliest passion (“Saving animals is all I’ve ever wanted to do”) becomes her career. A wildlife biologist who works to protect endangered species, Clem travels the world with ease and relish.

Louisa, meanwhile, stumbles upon herlife work without much fanfare. After failing as a potter, she turns to writing about art to pay the bills. Freelance assignments lead to staff positions. Writing leads to editing. Before you know it, Louisa’s found her niche, a solid if not joyful fit. Also not joyful are Louisa’s relationships with men. Clem attracts multitudes, each one a possible soul mate. Louisa, we learn, dates and marries the wrong guys.

What’s odd, though, given Glass’s skill as a writer, is how similar the voices of Clem and Louisa sound. Dive into the book at random and you’re hard-pressed to tell, until some specific detail clues you in, who’s speaking. Skipping through time is also a challenge. The book starts in 1980 and ends in 2005. In order to tell each new story, Glass lays on the back-story. The man who absconds with the family’s valuable hunting dogs must be explained. He heads from the East Coast to Carmel, where his rich mother lives, which means his family must be explained. Just as you adjust to each new scenario and sink back into the story, the scene ends and you’re uprooted again. The first few times, it’s actually pretty interesting. By mid-book, however, you’re tired. By then, Clem and Louisa are all we care about; they’re the ones we’re really interested in, and all that time-travel robs us of them.

Here’s Clem, thinking about her aunt, but giving voice to what’s wonderful and also frustrating about Glass’s book: “?I believe she was swept along on a tide, like most of us. There you are, diligently swimming a straight line, minding the form of your strokes, when you look up and see, always a shock, that currents you can’t even feel have pulled you off course.”

Off course, yes, but Glass is skilled enough that she’s still on target. It’s near the end of I See You Everywhere that this is truly clear. A tragedy, the specifics of which would spoil the story, rivets the entire family. Parents, family, friends, and co-workers grope for balance. So do we. Suddenly, everything that came before has new meaning. Incidental details turn out to have been important incidents. What seemed like accident was actually art, and Glass pulled it all off without our even realizing her artistry.