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"The Bear" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider

Twenty-something sisters Elena and Sam live with their ailing mother on San Juan Island in the “The Bear,” by Julia Phillips, a novel certain to hook readers with its unusual plot, a storyline that grows increasingly tense and disturbing.

Elena is the oldest of the girls, but not by much. She’s prettier and more outgoing, the sibling who appears more well-adjusted. Sam has always depended on Elena to take care of things. The girls had different fathers, their mother, when younger, was quite attractive and healthy until years of working as a manicurist, and inhaling toxic fumes, damaged her lungs.

Elena and Sam spent their childhood wandering the shores and wilderness of their island home, not wanting for anything, and not being aware that monetarily their family had very little. As they grew older, they counted on one another when their mother had a dysfunctional boyfriend, the girls wished would exit their lives sooner rather than later. Some abuse is hinted at, but no details are divulged in the story.

The sisters struggle to care for their dying mother at home, a death they’ve known would come, but never imagined would steal their mother away in bits and pieces in a long, progressive illness. It’s Elena who bears the most responsibility for her mother’s care and for managing mounting health bills, debt that increased dramatically during COVID because their jobs were affected. Elena was barely able to keep her position as a server at a country club, and Sam didn’t work for two years.

After the virus Sam gets menial employment in food service on a ferry, a job she resents because of the tourists she serves seem wealthy and carefree, not trapped like Sam. She has a chip on her shoulder, openly resents her job, and settles for sex with a boyfriend she doesn’t particularly like. Sam’s dream is for the girls to sell the family home, once their mother has passed, and start a new life somewhere.

Onto this bleak familial landscape, nature appears at the sisters’ door—a 400-pound grizzly bear—a shocker that terrifies the women, the beast capable of breaking into their home in search of food. When the beast makes repeated visits, Sam takes charge, notifying the authorities.

Her worries increase when Elena’s attitude about the bear changes from fear to fascination. Elena is entranced by the lumbering creature, watching it at close range when it appears on the trail she walks, and telling Sam the bear is the best thing that’s ever happened to her. Elena’s transition from terror to obsession, throws Sam into a tailspin.

“The Bear” is highly creative and well written, the sisters’ relationship growing more fractious because of Elena’s drive to befriend a wild creature. It’s difficult to understand what need the bear fulfills for Elena in a book that’s raises questions, leaving readers to form their own conclusions. This novel is so fascinating and different readers won't want to miss it.

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