Bear

A Novel

About the Book

From the celebrated, bestselling 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, 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.
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Praise for Bear

“A bold and brilliant modern fable of sisterhood, class, and our relationship to the natural world.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Mythical and enchanting, Phillips’s second novel delves into sisterhood and the mysteries of the animals that live among—and within—us all.”Oprah Daily (One of the Most Anticipated Books of 2024)

“This mythical novel of obsession, moral reckoning, and aspiration glows with fairy tale magic.”The Boston Globe

“As in Disappearing Earth, it’s Phillips’ mastery of the world she’s created that firmly roots the reader inside these characters’ psyches—and their story.”San Francisco Chronicle

Bear may remind readers of Alice Hoffman’s fantasy-flecked novels, and Phillips sprinkles around the fairy dust liberally in some sections. But she’s actually working closer to the realm of Henry James’s ‘Turn of the Screw,’ in which the central character blankets the story with her distorting anxieties.”The Washington Post

“Julia Phillips has my complete attention.”—Ann Patchett, author of Tom Lake

“There is something unsettling and uncanny about Julia Phillips’s wondrous second book, less a novel than a fairy tale for the strange times in which we live.”—Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind

“Julia Phillips’s rare and marvelous new novel weaves fairy-tale magic into a story of sisterhood, daughterhood, care, and devotion. Building with quiet fury to its astonishing ending, Bear will capture your heart and mind. I read in a state of wonder.”—Jessamine Chan, author of The School for Good Mothers

“In prose of surpassing beauty, Julia Phillips collapses the boundaries between species, communities, and sisters. Bear is magical, suspenseful, heartbreaking, and humane. It is the most moving, most accomplished work of fiction I’ve read in ages.”—Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

“Intense, moody, fierce, and relentlessly suspenseful, Bear is a modern-day fairy tale about the tenacious bonds and complexities of sisterhood.”—Angie Kim, author of Happiness Falls

“In this haunting fable of two sisters determined to steer their own destiny, Julia Phillips evokes the unsettling ways in which the wilder forces of the world around us will never allow us to tame them. I was spellbound.”—Julia Glass, author of Three Junes

Bear is the brutal cage of the real world and the magical animal within—a book of untamed, glorious, abundant interpretations.”—Megha Majumdar, author of A Burning

“I read Bear in one night and I am speechless.”—Jean Kwok, author of Searching for Sylvie Lee

Bear takes us to a wild, captivating place, just as Phillips did in her debut, Disappearing Earth.”—Bookpage

“Phillips is brilliant at balancing sharply drawn characters with finely woven plot and unnerving atmosphere.”—Lit Hub

“An enchanting modern-day fairy tale set off the coast of Washington State.”—Alta Journal
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Excerpt

Bear

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.

About the Author

Julia Phillips
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. More by Julia Phillips
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