The Invisible Circus

( 11 )

Overview

In Jennifer Egan’s highly acclaimed first novel, set in 1978, the political drama and familial tensions of the 1960s form a backdrop for the world of Phoebe O’Connor, age eighteen. Phoebe is obsessed with the memory and death of her sister Faith, a beautiful idealistic hippie who died in Italy in 1970. In order to find out the truth about Faith’s life and death, Phoebe retraces her steps from San Francisco across Europe, a quest which yields both complex and disturbing revelations about family, love, and Faith’s ...

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Overview

In Jennifer Egan’s highly acclaimed first novel, set in 1978, the political drama and familial tensions of the 1960s form a backdrop for the world of Phoebe O’Connor, age eighteen. Phoebe is obsessed with the memory and death of her sister Faith, a beautiful idealistic hippie who died in Italy in 1970. In order to find out the truth about Faith’s life and death, Phoebe retraces her steps from San Francisco across Europe, a quest which yields both complex and disturbing revelations about family, love, and Faith’s lost generation. This spellbinding novel introduced Egan’s remarkable ability to tie suspense with deeply insightful characters and the nuances of emotion.

1978: 18-year-old Phoebe O'Connor runs off to Europe seeking answers to the mysterious death of her sister, Faith, eight years prior. But instead of the millennial excitement Faith had sensed in the 1960s, Phoebe encounters disappointment and ennui--and glimpses the human price her sister paid in following her uncompromising quest for personal liberation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Mesmerizing. . . . Told with great assurance and power. . . . Egan portrays the sisters with a quiet, heartbreaking clarity.” —The New York Times Book Review“Wonderful. . . . Words glide through her fingers and enter the pores like cool San Francisco fog.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review“Brilliant in its authenticity and overwhelming passion.” —The Boston Globe“A trip that takes the reader through stunning emotional terrain.” —The New Yorker
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Suicide's undiminished impact on a family informs Egan's poignant first novel, the tale of an 18-year-old retracing her older sister's doomed excursion through Europe. As a child, Phoebe O'Connor felt less vital than her sister Faith. Their father, a frustrated artist, lived vicariously through the aptly named elder girl; Faith learned to please him by taking extravagant physical risks, and after his death, her apparent free-spiritedness masked the same desperate need to impress her peers. (The ``Invisible Circus,'' one character explains, was a late-'60s ``be-in'' that ``was all about watching ourselves happen,'' and Faith embraced this celebration of spontaneity.) But Faith lost faith-in 1968 when, on a trip with her boyfriend, she mysteriously fell from a cliff in Italy. Ten years later, Phoebe crosses the Atlantic, her itinerary mapped by Faith's falsely optimistic postcards, to learn how and why Faith died. The younger sister at first fails to realize that her impossibly romantic image of her sibling has left her suspended in time. She's leading only an artificial life dictated by a ghost, and Egan effectively contrasts Phoebe's rigidity with Faith's daring nature. Eventually, however, she discovers that Faith ``just threw herself away.'' Though the prose at times overexaggerates in conveying such extreme personalities, the author usually manages to keep it in check as Phoebe chooses her own future over Faith's forsaken one. (Jan.)
Library Journal
The 1960s seem to have had a pervasive influence on the lives of those who were young then. Phoebe O'Connor saw those years in terms of her older sister Faith's life and death. In 1978, 18-year-old Phoebe decides to relive the final months of Faith's life and perhaps discover the truth about her death. She leaves San Francisco for Europe, determined to retrace Faith's journey using the precious postcards from Faith that she has saved for ten years. She visits London, Amsterdam, France, and Germany, where she meets Faith's lover, Wolf. Wolf decides to accompany her to Italy, and they have a passionate, feverish affair as they travel to the place of Faith's death. Phoebe learns the truth about Faith, the sister she has idealized, and about herself and her family. These self-realizations are often painful to read because they are so real. Egan's first novel is great reading. Recommended for most fiction collections.-Barbara Maslekoff, Ohioana Lib., Columbus
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307387523
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/9/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 659,580
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan was born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and St. John's College, Cambridge. She is the author of three novels, The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Keep, as well as a collection of stories, Emerald City. She has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper's, Zoetrope and Ploughshares, among others, and her journalism appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was recently a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and sons.

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Read an Excerpt

oneShe'd missed it, Phoebe knew by the silence. Crossing the lush, foggy park, she heard nothing but the drip of condensation running from ferns and palm leaves. By the time she reached the field, its vast emptiness came as no surprise.The grass was a brilliant, jarring green. Debris covered it, straws, crushed cigarettes, a few sodden blankets abandoned to the mud.Phoebe shoved her hands in her pockets and crossed the grass, stepping over patches of bare mud. A ring of trees encircled the field, coastal trees, wind-bent and gnarled yet still symmetrical, like figures straining to balance heavy trays.At the far end of the field several people in army jackets were dismantling a bandstand. They carried its parts through the trees to a road, where Phoebe saw the dark shape of a truck.She approached a man and woman with long coils of orange electrical cord dangling from their arms. Phoebe waited politely for the two to finish talking, but they seemed not to notice her. Timidly she turned to another man, who carried a plank across his arms. "Excuse me," she said. "Did I miss it?""You did," he said. "It was yesterday. Noon to midnight." He squinted at her as if the sun were out. He looked vaguely familiar, and Phoebe wondered if he might have known her sister. She was always wondering that."I thought it was today," she said uselessly."Yeah, about half the posters were printed wrong." He grinned, his eyes a bright, chemical blue, like sno-cones.It was June 18, a Saturday. Ten years before, in 1968, a "Festival of Moons" had allegedly happened on this same field. "Revival of Moons," the posters promised, and Phoebe had juggled her shifts at work and come eagerly, anxious to relive what she'd failed to live even once."So, how was it?" she asked."Underattended." He laughed sardonically."I'm glad it wasn't just me," she said.The guy set down his plank and ran a hand across his eyes. Blunt, straight blond hair fell to his shoulders. "Man," he said, "you look a lot like this girl I used to know."Startled, Phoebe glanced at him. He was squinting again. "Like, exactly like her."She stared at his face. "Catnip," she said, surprising herself.He took a small step away."You were friends with Faith O'Connor, right?" Phoebe said, excited now. "Well, I'm her sister."Catnip looked away, then back at Phoebe. He shook his head. She remembered him now, though he'd seemed much bigger before. And beautiful—that intense, fragile beauty you saw sometimes in high school guys, but never in men. Girls couldn't resist him, hence his name.He was staring at Phoebe. "I can't believe this," he said.While Catnip went to extricate himself from the work crew, Phoebe struggled to catch her breath. For years she'd imagined this, a friend of Faith's recognizing her now, grown up—how much like her sister she looked.Together she and Catnip crossed the field. Phoebe felt nervous. There were blond glints of beard on his face."So you're what, in high school now?" he asked."I graduated," Phoebe said. "Last week, actually." She hadn't attended the ceremony."Well, I'm Kyle. No one's called me Catnip in years," he said wistfully."How old are you?""Twenty-six. Yourself?""Eighteen.""Eighteen," he said, and laughed. "Shit, when I was eighteen, twenty-six sounded geriatric."Kyle had just finished his second year of law school. "Monday I start my summer job," he said, and with two fingers mimed a pair of scissors snipping off his hair."Really? They make you cut it?" It sounded like the Army."They don't have to," he said. "You've already done it."Traffic sounds grew louder as they neared the edge of Golden Gate Park. Phoebe felt like a child left alone with one of Faith's friends, the uneasy job of holding their interest. "Do you ever think about those times?" she asked. "You know, with my sister?"There was a pause. "Sure," Kyle said. "Sure I do.""Me too.""She's incredibly real to me. Faith," he said."I think about her constantly," said Phoebe.Kyle nodded. "She was your sister."By the time they reached Haight Street, the fog was beginning to shred, exposing blue wisps of sky. Phoebe thought of mentioning that she worked only two blocks away—would be there right now if not for the Revival of Moons—but this seemed of no consequence."I live around here," Kyle said. "How about some coffee?"His apartment, on Cole Street, was a disappointment. Phoebe had hoped to enter a time warp, but a sleek charcoal couch and long glass coffee table dominated the living room. On the walls, abstract lithographs appeared to levitate inside Plexiglas frames. Still, a prism dangled from one window, and tie-dyed cushions scattered the floor. Phoebe noticed a smell of cloves or pepper, some odor familiar from years before.She sat on the floor, away from the charcoal couch. When Kyle shed his army jacket, Phoebe noticed through his T-shirt how muscular he was. He took a joint from a Lucite cigarette holder on the coffee table and fired it up, then lowered himself to the floor."You know," he croaked, holding in smoke as he passed the joint to Phoebe, "a bunch of times I thought about dropping by you and your mom's. Just see how you were doing.""You should've done it," Phoebe said. She was eyeing the joint, worrying whether or not to smoke. Getting high made her deeply anxious, had paralyzed her more than once in a viselike fear that she was about to drop dead. But she thought of her sister, how eagerly Faith had reached for everything—how Kyle would expect this of Phoebe. She took a modest hit. Kyle was bent at his stereo, stacking records on a turntable. Surrealistic Pillow came on, the rich, eerie voice of Grace Slick."She remarried or anything, your mom?" he asked, resuming his seat."Oh no," Phoebe said, half laughing. "No."As Kyle watched her through the smoke, she grew self-conscious. "I guess that phase in her life is kind of over," she explained.He shook his head. "Too bad.""No, she doesn't mind," Phoebe said, wondering as she spoke if she knew this for sure. "She's sort of past the age of romance."Kyle frowned, toking on the joint. "How old could she be?""Her birthday's next weekend, actually. Forty-seven."He burst out laughing, spewing smoke and then coughing with abandon. "Forty-seven," he said, recovering himself. "That's not old, Phoebe."She stared at him, stunned by his laughter. "I didn't say she was old," she said. The pot was confusing her.Kyle's eyes lingered on Phoebe. Smoke hung on the air in folds, dissolving slowly like cream into coffee. "What about you?" he said. "How've you been?""Fine, thanks," she said guardedly.By the time they finished the joint, the room seemed to pulsate directly against Phoebe's eyeballs. Her heartbeat echoed. The pillows exhaled a cinnamon smell when she leaned back.Kyle stretched out flat, hands cradling his head, legs crossed at the ankles. "I want to talk about it," he said, his eyes closed, "but I don't know how to.""Me too," Phoebe said. "I never do."Kyle opened one eye. "Not even with your mom? Your brother?""I don't know why," Phoebe said. "We used to.""Plastic Fantastic Lover" came on, meandering and druggy, invading Phoebe's mind with fluorescent splashes of color. They listened in silence."So . . . did you ever find out what happened?" Kyle said at last."You mean, how she died?""Yeah. How it happened exactly."As always when the subject turned to Faith, some pressure inside Phoebe relaxed. She took long, peaceful breaths. "Well, everyone says she jumped."Kyle sighed. "In Italy, right?"Phoebe nodded. After a pause she asked, "Do you believe it?""I don't know," Kyle said. "I mean, the way I heard it—you'd know better than me—it would've been pretty hard to fall there by accident.""Except no one saw."Kyle raised himself on his elbows and looked at Phoebe. She gazed back at him, very stoned, trying to pinpoint what exactly had changed about Kyle since the old days."But I mean, why?" he said. "You know—why?"He looked so earnest, as if he were the first person ever to pose the question in quite this way. It made Phoebe laugh, softly at first, then convulsively, tears running from her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said, wiping them on her sleeve. Her nose was running. "Sorry."Kyle touched her arm. "I just wondered what the story was," he said."Yeah," Phoebe said, sniffling. "Me too." Laughing had relieved her, the way crying did."You think it was an accident," Kyle said."I'm not sure."He nodded. The subject was closed, somehow. Phoebe felt as if she'd lost a chance. It was her own fault, she thought, for laughing.They drifted into silence. Phoebe's thumb and middle finger were sticky with resin. Kyle relit the roach, and when he handed it over, she smoked without hesitation. Finally Kyle let the nub of roach drop to the floor and sat cross-legged, the fingers of one hand pressed to the other. "You look like her," he said. "I guess you hear that a lot.""I don't hear it," Phoebe said, confused as to why. "Because"—she laughed, realizing—"well, I mean, no one sees us together." Kyle smacked his forehead, clearly mortified."But I wish they did," Phoebe said. "Say that."He left her, crossing the room to the window. Phoebe stretched, reaching toward the ceiling in her painter's pants and desert boots so the muscles pulled at her ribs. She was very stoned, but today it seemed all right. She even felt a loopy sort of confidence as she lay on her side, watching Kyle squint through his prism. A nylon thread attached it to the window. He twisted it, scattering smudges of rainbow light. King Crimson's song "Moonchild" came on."I just had a weird feeling," Kyle said."What?""I thought, if you told me right now you were Faith, I bet I'd believe you."Phoebe turned her face away to hide her pleasure. She still wore Faith's clothing sometimes, frayed jeans and lacy flea-market blouses, a crushed velvet jacket with star-shaped buttons. Nothing quite fit. Her sister had been thinner, or taller, her black hair longer—something. Try as Phoebe might to bridge the gap between herself and Faith, some difference always remained. But one day that difference would vanish, she believed, part of a larger transformation Phoebe was constantly awaiting. She had thought it would come by graduation."I'm leaving for Europe pretty soon," she lied, seized by a desire to impress and dazzle Kyle. "A long trip.""Oh yeah?" he said from the window. "Where to?""I'm not sure. I thought I'd just go, you know? Kind of be spontaneous." There was some truth in this; Phoebe did intend to go one day to Europe, retrace her sister's steps. She had always known it. But she'd enrolled at Berkeley for the fall semester, chosen five courses and even dorm space."I'm all for spontaneity," Kyle said, sounding envious.So had their father been. In his will he'd tried to ensure it, providing Faith and Phoebe and Barry five thousand dollars each after high school, to explore the world. "Do it first," he'd said, "before you get tied down. Do things you'll tell stories about the rest of your lives.""Just go, you know?" Phoebe said, losing herself in the lie. "Just take off."Kyle moved to where she lay, his bare feet sticking on the polished floor. A knee cracked as he eased himself on the cushions beside her. Phoebe shut her eyes."You're beautiful," he said, touching her face. Phoebe opened her eyes and quickly shut them. She felt giddy, as if the room, like Kyle's prism, were twisting on a nylon string. He leaned down, kissing her mouth. Phoebe kissed him back, some blind part of herself rushing forward. She was still a virgin. Kyle's mouth had a sweet, applesauce taste.He adjusted the cushions and stretched out beside her. As he touched Phoebe's breasts through her T-shirt, she sensed his confidence, and it helped her relax. Kyle took her head in his hands, his palms cool at her temples, and Phoebe heard behind her covered ears a rushing, seashell noise. Kyle eased himself on top of her. She clung to the muscles along his spine, the heat from his body seeping through Phoebe's clothes to her skin. The coiled strength of his stomach moved gently as he breathed; his erection pressed her thigh. She opened her eyes to look at him. But Kyle's own eyes were clenched shut, as if he were making a wish."Wait—wait," Phoebe said, squirming out from beneath him.Kyle resisted her at first, then sprang to his feet as if a stranger had entered the room. Phoebe heard his shallow breathing. She sat curled like an egg, chin on her knees. Kyle moved to the couch and hunched at one end. "Shit," he said.But Phoebe had lost track of him. There was something she needed to remember. She shut her eyes, forehead pressed to her knees, and saw Faith and her friends swallow tiny squares of paper and sometime later start laughing, crazy weeping laughter that in Faith soon turned to helpless sobbing in her boyfriend's arms—"Wolf" he was called for his brown skin and white teeth, brown hands on her sister's head, "Shhh," stroking her hair as if Faith were a cat, "Shhh." Shirtless under a soft leather vest, his brown stomach muscles reminding Phoebe of the shapes on a turtle's shell. And then Faith was kissing him, Phoebe watching, uneasy. "Come on," Faith said, and tried to stand, but she couldn't; she was sick, her eyes feverish. "Come on." Kissing, kissing, but Wolf saw Phoebe crouched beside him, and their eyes locked."Faith, wait," he said. "Babe, hold on.But finally he helped her up, Phoebe creeping behind them into the hall, where they tottered to the far end, her mother's white bedroom door swinging shut behind them. Then silence. Phoebe waited in the hall for the door to open up again, growing frightened as the minutes passed—her sister was sick, could hardly walk! After their father got sick that door was always shut, sweet medicine smells in the hallway. Phoebe threw herself down on the rug and lay there in a kind of trance, the white door burning a hole through her head until finally after what seemed like hours she ran at the door sobbing, cool smooth paint against her cheek, but still she didn't turn the knob. She was too afraid.Then footsteps. Phoebe jumped back as Faith opened the door, her sister's eyes wide and black, drops of water sticking to her lashes. Hugging Phoebe close, "Baby," rocking her gently, "Baby, baby, what's happened to you?" Smelling of soap—had she only been taking a shower? And Wolf, the hero, watching Phoebe with such pain in his face, as if he'd hurt her. No, Phoebe wanted to say, no, no, but how could she speak when she understood nothing, when everyone was mysterious?

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Reading Group Guide

The high ideals and inevitable compromises of the 1960's form the background to this acclaimed first novel. Phoebe O'Connor, eighteen years old in the summer of 1978, is too young to know the 1960s, but old enough to feel its influences. Living in San Francisco with her widowed mother, Phoebe is obsessed with the memory of her charismatic older sister, Faith, a flower child who died in 1970. Searching for the truth about her death and life, Phoebe follows Faith's trail from San Francisco through Europe, culminating in the very place where she leapt to her death. The truth that Phoebe discovers is larger and darker than one death; it goes to the ambiguous heart of a generation that tried to follow its dreams of freedom, only to defer those dreams.
Discussion Questions:
1. Do the 60s have enduring symbolism for America? How do we understand and misunderstand this era in our history?

2. Are you able to characterize your generation? What traits would you ascribe to it?

3. Describe the moment in which Phoebe first understands her sister's suicide. What finally allows her to see the truth?

4. Talk about the most important rite of passage you experienced. Compare the feelings and beliefs you held before with those you held after.

5. When Phoebe meets Wolf -- the man who accompanied Faith in Europe -- how does her journey change? What does Wolf show Phoebe about herself?

6. The Invisible Circus traces a younger sister's search for her older sister. In what ways might the novel differ if the author had chosen to make the characters brothers?

7. Does the title of the book deepen your understanding of the plot? How does the circus in chapter one reflect Phoebe's experience?

8. What role do images -- paintings, photographs, postcards, and so on play in the novel? Is there a religious dimension to some of them?

Jennifer Egan, in her own words:
How did you come to write The Invisible Circus?
"The Idea came to me in my senior year in college, after reading an article about missing the 60s. I felt something snap into place as I read, and that same afternoon I conceived of two sisters -- one destroyed by the brilliant excesses of that period; the other, who missed it, nearly destroyed by her obsessive nostalgia for that time."

Do you prefer to write about children and adolescents? Why did you choose a young girl for your heroine?
"There's a part of me I hope will always remain childlike: the ability to believe anything, and that everything is fascinating. I do feel there's this alternately terrified, rambunctious, very credulous part of me."

What role do religion and spirituality play in The Invisible Circus?
"It's central to the book -- it's no accident that Phoebe is searching for a person named Faith. We all crave -- and always have -- moments when we seem to rise above our lives, to become more than ourselves, to merge with something larger. The impulse towards faith is profoundly human and exists in every culture. As Western Civilization becomes more secular, this religious impulse -- this longing to believe -- has begun to express itself in more and more marginal ways: drug use, cult membership, and wacky spiritual pursuits."

The first draft of this book was 800 pages and you have described it as "horrible." What have you learned from it?
"I think one thing that this book has taught me, is you can write terrible stuff and have everyone hate it, and think that you're going nowhere, and actually be sure that you'll never publish a book, and it can still work out."

About the Author:
Jennifer Egan was born in Chicago and grew up in San Francisco. Upon graduating from high school, she traveled around Europe by herself, creating the itinerary for Phoebe in The Invisible Circus., After attending the University of Pennsylvania, Egan began her first, unsuccessful draft of The Invisible Circus while studying at St. John's College in Cambridge. Of the early 800 page draft Egan says, "it was horrible -- unreadably bad -- I made every mistake you could make." In 1987 she moved to New York City, where, to support her writing, she took odd jobs such as catering at Port Authority, word-processing, and private investigation. For two years she was the private secretary of the Countess of Romanones, an ex-spy and memoirist. Egan got her first story published by The New Yorker when she was 26. Since then, her stories and journalism have appeared in many magazines, such as GQ, Ploughshares, and The New York Times Magazine.

Since publishing this novel, and also an acclaimed collection of stories called Emerald City, Egan has won both the NEA and Guggenheim grants. She writes and teaches in New York, where she lives with her husband, a theater director.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2008

    A reviewer

    The novel was okay. I wouldn't say it was amazing but it wasn't terrible either. Any reader is basically going along while a teenager makes her way through a foreign country and loses her virginity...Egan is a good writer, but I wouldn't necessary recommend it for great reading.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 5, 2012

    An Unforgettable Story of Travel, Love, Loss and Sisters

    This has to be one of the best books I've read in a long time. Egan's prose is beautiful and captivating. Wish it had a different title though, something like Keeping Faith. It's the one thing I wish were different. So many passages here that I could just read and re-read. Hope that Egan returns to more stories like this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2008

    Promising Start but Difficult to get through later

    One of the nice things about picking up novels at tag sales is that there is no great loss if you don't like the story. Such was the case with this book. It started out very promising, with the early chapters--before the main character, Phoebe, set out on her own to Europe--that sucked me in. Unfortunately, Phoebe's European trek to retrace her long-dead sister Faith's footsteps was supposed to be the meat of the story. Phoebe was only about ten when Faith committed suicide in Italy, and her sister's wild life and tragic death has haunted her ever since. Phoebe idolized her sister, was jealous of her at times, and was too young to understand what happened to her. She has a romanticized picture of the 60's in San Francisco as a turbulent exciting time and nothing that came after could match that excitement. I--incorrectly--assumed Faith had died of a drug overdose, so could not understand Phoebe's interest in taking a tab of acid (and tripping out) or her intense relationship with her sister's former boyfriend, Wolf. My guess is that despite her sister's death, Phoebe glamorized her life, so much so, that in taking up with Wolf, she felt she could actually BE Faith. This wasn't a bad premise for a story, but I would have enjoyed the novel more if the author did not try so hard at descriptive writing, overusing similes and metaphors at every turn. It reminded me too much of Jodi Picoult's novels, which have great story lines also, but where an overabundance of (often strained) descriptions actually takes away from the story.<BR/><BR/>Still, I may pick up another Jennifer Egan novel. The Invisible Circus has promise; I'm just not so sold on the endorsements by Pat Conroy and others.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2007

    AWEFUL

    I wish i could give it a review lower than poor. I couldn't believe how horrible this book was. I was very disappointed. The only reason I finished this book was because I hate stopping halfway through books. I actually told my friends to avoid reading this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2001

    FABULOUS

    I loved this book - so much that I read it more than twice. Interesting characters, great usage of the English language. I also recommend her collection of short stories, Emerald City, if you like this.

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