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Review by Kelly Jarvis: Bear by Julia Phillips

Bear, by Julia Phillips, is a mesmerizing tale of two sisters, Sam and Elena, struggling to survive as their mother’s health slips away. Living in a crumbling house on a remote island off the coast of Washington, the two sisters work as waitresses on the ferry from the mainland and in the local golf club, while they dream of escaping to find new lives. Sam feels like “Cinderella picking lentils from the ashes,” and her fleeting relationship with a fellow ferry worker does little to provide her any spiritual comfort, but when she spots a bear swimming in the waters off the island and tells her sister about it, everything in their lives begins to change. Elena is entranced by the bear, a grizzly that marks the side of their house with his secretions and returns to devour the food left out for him, but Sam is frightened by the bear and contacts authorities and biologists in the hopes of removing him from their property.


Readers of fairy tales will recognize the patterns of The Brothers Grimm “Snow White and Rose Red” beneath Julia Phillips’ stark and stunning prose, but although Bear features two sisters (one light and conforming and one dark and rebellious), a devoted mother, a bear that enters the women’s domestic space, and even a bearded dwarf constellation, the novel is anything but a fairy tale. Phillips sets her novel solidly in contemporary, post-pandemic times, and her plot replaces storybook enchantment with an appreciation for the harsh and unforgiving natural world, with Elena explaining that the bear is magical and the best thing that ever happened to the sisters. Woven with flashbacks to their childhood, the novel presents Sam and Elena, now both close to thirty, attempting to reconcile their different approaches to life in the wake of their mother’s illness and the bear’s appearance.


I loved the authentic exploration of the sister’s tense but endearing bond in the novel. Together, they have faced an isolating childhood in a small community, and they have survived their mother’s abusive boyfriend, though his shadowy presence haunts the relationships both sisters enter into in their adulthood. As Sam and Elena’s life goals and responsibilities start to diverge, they must ask themselves where their devotion to each other ends and their individual desires begin. Phillips’ harrowing novel rings with the dark truths of life itself, and although it is heavily informed by fairy tales, the only happily-ever-after is found in the stories the sisters tell to comfort their heartbreak and loneliness. This book is a must-read for those who enjoy realistic, contemporary fairy tale retellings and nuanced explorations of family relationships. I will be thinking about Bear for a long time to come! You can find it here.


Thank you to Netgalley for a free copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.

Kelly Jarvis works as the Assistant Editor for The Fairy Tale Magazine where she writes stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and interviews. Her poetry has also been featured or is forthcoming in Blue Heron Review, Mermaids Monthly, Eternal Haunted Summer, Forget Me Not Press, The Magic of Us, A Moon of One’s Own, Baseball Bard, and Corvid Queen. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chamber Magazine and the World Weaver Press Anthology Mothers of Enchantment: New Tales of Fairy Godmothers. You can connect with her on Facebook (Kelly Jarvis, Author) or Instagram (@kellyjarviswriter) or find her at https://kellyjarviswriter.com/

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