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Julia Phillips' debut, "Disappearing Earth," had to do with sisters and with women who, because they're poor and conditioned to make themselves unnoticeable, vanished from the face of the Earth with barely anyone taking note. She's at it again with "Bear."

"Disappearing Earth" was a National Book Award finalist and "Bear," a page turner that's full of insightful writing, is every bit as good. Like "Disappearing," "Bear" is set on a remote archipelago — this time, the islands off the coast of the state of Washington, rather than off the eastern coast of Russia. Twentyish sisters Elena and Sam live there, barely surviving in a house that's falling apart while caring for their mother, whose death they fear but also think could set them free from their pinched existence.

Inspired by the fairy tale of Snow White and Rose Red, "Bear" depicts the sisters as incredibly close but also very different. When a grizzly bear appears in the front yard, gnawing on their home and begging for food, frightened Sam calls the authorities for help. Elena is almost alarmingly chill, assuring her sister, "What's going on here is not dangerous. It's magical. It's the best thing that has ever happened to us."

Those differing takes are just one sign that the always-close sisters are growing apart. There are other signs, and Phillips' calm, hypnotic prose makes sure we're aware that the cost of that fracture could be deep, especially when Elena and the bear start strolling and picnicking together, almost like lovers. References to violent, real-world encounters with bears keep popping up, as do warnings from wildlife experts.


The title character is very real in "Bear" but it's also a metaphor, with the sisters' contrasting takes revealing how differently they see the world. Elena's bizarre embrace of her ursine pal is clearly bonkers, but what about Sam's belief that selling their decrepit house will instantly put them on Easy Street? Which of these women, the book asks, is living in a fairy tale?


By: Julia Phillips.

Publisher: Hogarth, 288 pages, $28.

Event: Conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld, 6 p.m. July 15, Barnes & Noble, Galleria, Edina. Free.