Bear: A Novel

Bear: A Novel

by Julia Phillips
Bear: A Novel

Bear: A Novel

by Julia Phillips


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Notes From Your Bookseller

Sisterhood is the stuff of fairytales, and Julia Phillips has written a wild story about the collision between people's dreams and animals' realities.

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From the celebrated author of Disappearing Earth comes a tale of family, obsession, and a mysterious creature in the woods—“a mesmerizing story about hope, sisterhood, and survival with a truly shocking twist at the end” (People, Book of the Week).


One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Summer: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, People, Vulture, Elle, Bustle, LitHub, Parade, Publishers Weekly, Electric Lit, WBEZ Chicago

“Thrilling and propulsive, glorious and terrifying. Julia Phillips is a brilliant writer.”—Ann Patchett

“Beautiful and haunting . . . this is brilliant.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

They were sisters and they would last past the end of time.

Sam and Elena dream of another life. On the island off the coast of Washington where they were born and raised, they and their mother struggle to survive. Sam works on the ferry that delivers wealthy mainlanders to their vacation homes while Elena bartends at the local golf club, but even together they can’t earn enough to get by, stirring their frustration about the limits that shape their existence.

Then one night on the boat, Sam spots a bear swimming the dark waters of the channel. Where is it going? What does it want? When the bear turns up by their home, Sam, terrified, is more convinced than ever that it’s time to leave the island. But Elena responds differently to the massive beast. Enchanted by its presence, she throws into doubt the desire to escape and puts their long-held dream in danger.

A story about the bonds of sisterhood and the mysteries of the animals that live among us—and within us—Bear is a propulsive, mythical, richly imagined novel from one of the most acclaimed young writers in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525520436
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/25/2024
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 197
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 7.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Julia Phillips is the bestselling author of the novel Disappearing Earth, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year. A 2024 Guggenheim fellow, she lives with her family in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

The ferry from Friday Harbor left fourteen times a day—fifteen on weekends—to loop around San Juan Channel’s scattered islands. Every trip lasted at least sixty-­five minutes. Too long. Sam spent that whole time, hours daily, tourist season after tourist season, in the galley making coffee for people who treated her like a peasant.

Like Cinderella picking lentils from the ashes, Sam was a nobody doing work that meant nothing, but no prince was ever going to pluck her out of this. She saw them all the time on the boat, those royal types: the usual wealthy with their salt-­and-­pepper hair and orthodontist-­straightened smiles. The celebrities and Seattle tech millionaires, meanwhile, glowed at the gas station after getting to the island by private plane. They didn’t see her. They never would. Young as she was, Sam had lived long enough to know who could be counted on and who couldn’t, who could be trusted and who had to be put up with in order to pay the bills. Broad-­shouldered men lined up before her all day long; it didn’t matter. Elena was the only one who would save her from this place. They were going to have to save each other.

Sam’s station was a little box trapped inside a big one, a high-­walled beverage and snack counter at the center of a wide room lined by fluorescent lights and shatterproof windows. Outside those windows, the waves rippled, the clouds shifted. Sometimes a dock appeared. Passengers shuffled on and off. The dock receded. Under the lights, people yelled after their misbehaving children. They made ostentatious plans for how they would spend their vacations: kayaking? Beachcombing? Visiting the lavender farms? They stared through Sam to the food display cases and asked whether the boat’s prepackaged cinnamon rolls were any good. She said they were. They weren’t. Whether she recommended the pastries or suggested a pretzel or warned them about eating chowder on rough seas, the tourists barely touched the counter’s tip jar, which was wrapped with a paper sign exhorting them to be kind and consider generosity.

Some tiny part of her couldn’t blame them. After this long in food service, Sam, too, had stopped considering generosity. Now it was all bare routine. Brew the coffee. Dump the grounds. Restock the sugar packets. Get through one more shift.

Sam made twenty-­four dollars an hour riding across gray waters, selling plastic-­sheathed cookies and bags of chips. Ten dollars above minimum wage—one dollar for every year of her life spent at the whim of the Washington State Department of Transportation. Good money, if she actually got reliable shifts, but she’d never yet been able to stitch together a living.

A decade earlier, high school diploma in hand, Sam had pictured making a salary they could count on. Even flourish with. Elena had paid for Sam to get a merchant mariner certification so Sam could work for the ferries—those were good jobs, state jobs, with benefits and a pension and health insurance that would cover the whole family. But the state didn’t hire Sam. They didn’t even interview her. Nothing she had counted on back then had come to pass. Elena’d had to scramble to get Sam a job with her at the golf club, where management didn’t like Sam and Sam didn’t like them, and the club members told long, dull stories about their days on the green, and everyone complained about how their drinks were mixed. When, finally, dining opened on the ferries, it seemed a small miracle: Sam was certified, qualified, experienced. Elena was relieved. The ferry’s dining vendor did hire Sam. They paid her. They got her into a routine, and then the pandemic arrived, and sailings were canceled, and the galleys shut down, and they dropped her for two years.

Two years at home. Two years with nothing better. The club wouldn’t hire Sam back at that point; they said they could barely afford to keep Elena on as it was. Fewer tourists were coming. On the island, Sam only saw boutique coffee shops with narrowing hours, second homes that needed less cleaning, fancy restaurants that would never employ her anyway because she had bad people skills and f***ed-­up teeth. After Sam ran through her unemployment, she started taking online surveys for cash, but those didn’t deliver the big bucks, either—a couple dollars for every hour tallied, maybe. She drove their mother to doctors’ appointments, sat in parking lots to tap through market research questions on her phone, and took the meager payments that arrived.

Their family had had to put so much on Elena’s credit cards these past couple years. Sixty-­five hundred dollars, which had turned, with interest, into nearly eleven thousand, the last Sam heard. And then their car broke down over the winter. The cost of their mother’s medication went up. When, in April, the state announced they were reopening ferry dining, Elena put her head down on their kitchen table, and Sam said, “Are you crying?”

Elena looked up, dry-­eyed. Worn out. “No,” she said. Then: “But thank God.”

Sam didn’t see any reason for gratitude. She’d been back in the galley more than a month now, and things were as tight as they’d always been. She was still taking her phone surveys, though sometimes she’d forfeit even those if the boat left an island and she lost cell service before she finished filling one out. Tourists interrupted her with inane questions about the Lummi Nation as if Sam had the time to go to canoe landing ceremonies or make herself an expert on San Juan’s history. Elena, meanwhile, was trying to keep her tips, stinking of hamburger grease from the club’s grill, on top of the refrigerator as an emergency fund, but emergencies kept coming, kept taking. Everything they made was siphoned away by taxes and bills and their ­mother’s healthcare costs.

How exhausting. This slog. Endless. No matter their jobs or their wages, this is how things would be, as long as they lived on the island. They would have to move, Sam always told Elena, if they wanted a life worth living. And Elena didn’t disagree. They didn’t even have to discuss it: the necessity of moving. Both had committed long ago.

These days, Elena only quibbled over the details. That was her role, maybe, as the older sister, to think more practically. They would need savings to go, Elena said, and they didn’t have any; they had to pay this, and that, and here, and there, and . . .

Friday Harbor was behind Sam now. Ahead of her. Behind. Across the waves, along the channel, as the ferry orbited the center of Sam’s tiny universe. Black seabirds swooped along the water. The islands of the archipelago made an unending series of green velvet mounds. Over their shorelines, shining white buildings sat on stacked hills. Years ago, before Elena devoted her time to fretting over a million logistics, she had told Sam that they did have one way out of this place: the house. Sell the house, and their better future would at last arrive.

The house was a 1979 vinyl-­sided nightmare, a too-­small two-­bedroom bought by their grandmother with her survivors benefits after their grandfather passed. She must have imagined, then, that it would be a stepping-­stone to lift their family through the middle class. It wasn’t. It hung heavy around their necks. Their grandmother had died in that house, and their mother brought Elena and Sam into the world there. Around them all, the place had aged. The trim under its stair treads bent off. The wall paint, peach and pastel, was peeling. The tiles in the shower were cracked, letting water seep into the house’s body, where it sat and rotted, degrading what little legacy their grandmother had left.

But awful as it was, it was still a property on scenic San Juan Island. The house sat on six wooded acres five miles outside town. That land was gold. Useless as it weighed on their family for now, it would mean something to somebody, someday.

The sisters had shared a bedroom until the summer before Sam’s senior year, when Elena, newly graduated, moved to the living room. Elena at eighteen was restless, wilder. More willing to chatter with Sam about the possibility of their dreams. One night, after Sam crept out to spend time together before sleep, they sat on the sofa, pillow and blanket balled alongside, and Elena set out the whole plan.

Their mother had already started, at that point, to cut back her schedule at the salon. Her breath was short. She felt chest pressure. Elena saw how tired she was, how much weaker she was growing, and understood—she needed them. So they would stay, Elena told Sam. They would take care of their mother, as she’d taken care of their grandmother, until she didn’t need care anymore. Eventually they would inherit, then sell, the house, and use the proceeds to set themselves up elsewhere. A place where they could do what they wanted. Slog less, live more. Become the people they had never before had the freedom to be.

That night, Elena guessed they might only have a couple years left with their mother. Five, at most. They had to spend that precious time with her.

It rocked Sam, a wake against her body, to count the years that had passed since that decision. She was twenty-­eight now, and Elena nearly thirty. Their mother kept living. Needing them more these days than ever before.

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