Berkshire Eagle Book Club | Our Reviews: 'Disappearing Earth'

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The Book: "Disappearing Earth," by Julia Phillips.

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; First Edition (May 14, 2019)

Synopsis: One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern edge of Russia, two girls — sisters, 8 and 11 — go missing. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Taking us one chapter per month across a year on Kamchatka, the novel connects the lives of characters changed by the sisters' abduction: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. In the girls' tightly-woven community, everyone must grapple with the loss. But the fear and danger of their disappearance is felt most profoundly among the women of this isolated place.

It's tough to review this book as a whole. The novel is broken down into a series of monthly vignettes, some of which are excellent, some forgettable.

Julia Phillips does do a solid job opening and closing the book. The two young girls being taken, and the ending's reveal are crafted expertly and had me on the edge of my seat. It's a different sort of resolution, that leaves a lot to the imagination, but it didn't take anything away from the full book's experience for me.

The inbetween lost me a couple of times, with too-lengthy departures from the overarching storyline, and, honestly, a lot of difficult Russian names to keep track of. I would've liked to have checked in with the "A" story a bit more often, but it's fun to see what she is building to.

The maze never got tricky enough for me to give up. There's maybe one or two fumbles from August through July, but when Phillips really gets cooking, I'm all in. The scenes rife with dramatic tension between lovers, or want-to-be lovers; the pained restraint of characters at the climax, mixed with devastating feelings of loss and fear — all of that digs into you while pouring through "Disappearing Earth."

I may not remember everyone's name, but I remember what they were feeling and what I was feeling.

— Mike Walsh, sports writer

Julia Phillips' "Disappearing Earth" opens, seemingly, as a mystery: Two young girls, Alyona and Sophia, climb into the car with a stranger and disappear. What follows, however, is a multiple point-of-view novel that focuses more on the societal constraints of these female narrators living on an isolated peninsula in Russia.

By the time you've returned to Alyona and Sophia, it's been so many chapters, about marriage, motherhood, illness, poverty, race relations and the limited opportunities available to these women, that you've given up on their recovery and the suspense revolving around their disappearance has dissipated.

It's perhaps true that the author uses the suppression of these women to trap the reader as effectively as these girls are trapped by the stranger. It can't be denied that the constraining, disheartening, utterly recognizable cages these women navigate are exhaustingly universal to a female reader. Whether the men they interact with can be labeled as "good" or "bad," these women are stuck in their world - only one is truly able to break free of the emotional and physical bonds of men, and it's suggested to potentially lethal consequences.

In the final two chapters, the author returns us to the previously scheduled mystery, regains that lost suspense and drives the reader to an abrupt, emotional, ambiguous ending. I'll definitely be talking about this book with people who have read it — but I probably won't be pressuring anyone to do so.

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— Meggie Baker, calendar editor

In this book club, we each take turns picking new works for the group to read. This month's choice was mine. I felt some pressure; my last selection, Tommy Orange's "There There," was a hit. Unfortunately, I'm afraid Phillips' debut novel won't get the raves that Orange's did. (If I'm wrong, well, you'll know that these are truly independent reviews!) Let's start with the good. I chose this book because I vaguely remembered reading that Phillips had received a Fulbright to visit a random Russian peninsula that inspired her novel's setting. (My memory served me well.) I'm all for an atmospheric novel, one that privileges place, especially a little-known one; when I travel, I like to read a book set wherever I'm going. Phillips didn't disappoint in that regard. Through brilliant prose that is at times lyrical and others terse, Phillips takes us across a landscape that is parts coastal, rustic, barren and volcanic. She makes the Kamchatka Peninsula, barely populated and once a military zone, its own character. Early on, she also has our hearts beating. Two children are kidnapped, leading to a missing persons case that, to different degrees, captures the attention of the dozens — not a typo — of characters the reader meets in subsequent chapters. Like Orange, Phillips uses structural breaks to provide new sets of characters with individual stories of love, loss and isolation. Unlike Orange, Phillips waits too long to intertwine these tales. This novel rewards the patient reader. The ending is extraordinarily affecting and is perhaps best digested alone. That is, in a place like Kamchatka.

— Benjamin Cassidy, arts and entertainment reporter

When I read the synopsis of "Disappearing Earth," I was excited. At last, someone had picked a suspense thriller about two missing little girls. I eagerly read the first chapter, "August," in which the girls on a remote Russian peninsula are abducted by a mysterious man in a dark car. I was intrigued and turned the page for their tale to continue; but it didn't, at least not in the way I expected.

Their kidnapping remains in the background with the succeeding chapters, named for the next 11 months, all but the last one focusing on a woman with a connection to the girls. Each chapter focuses on one woman and her story — her trials, tribulations, thoughts and actions — and each woman is very distinct and easy to empathize with. Added into that mix are a small town's fears and suspicions, the racism exhibited toward the indigenous people of the peninsula and a longing for the old Soviet Union and the way of life under it.

The last two chapters in the book tie many things up, but not in the way you would think. There are still some questions left unanswered for you to ponder.It wasn't quite the suspense thriller I had hoped for, but it was a book well worth the time I spent reading it. It's one I won't forget any time soon.

— Margaret Button, associate features editor

Categorizing this novel as a thriller, in my opinion, is really a disservice to it. What this book is about, in totality, is how a tragic event, like a kidnapping, impacts a community as a whole — even those who are not directly connected to it. The disappearance of the sisters seeps into the lives of all who live in Kamchatka, ever present and under the surface. But, it is the women of this community who feel its effects the most. And it is those individuals who Phillips gives us access to as she weaves their stories together, drawing them in closer to another as the novel progresses towards its end. The book ends with a revelation that answers a few questions, but nothing is wrapped up neatly when we reach the conclusion. Yes, there are questions left unanswered. But, as in real life, we never truly know the "whole story" when it comes to situations like this one. This is a book you'll need to spend some time with, despite it being under 300 pages, but it will be time well spent.

— Jennifer Huberdeau, UpCountry Magazine editor

Win a copy of the book: If you would like to take home a copy of "Disappearing Earth," email or write to Lindsey Hollenbaugh, managing editor of features, and tell her what book you are most looking forward to reading in 2019. What book is on your radar that you'd like us to read as well? A comment will be picked at random.

What you need to do: Send your comment via email to lhollenbaugh@berkshireeagle.com. Or, via mail: Lindsey Hollenbaugh, The Berkshire Eagle, 75 South Church St., Pittsfield MA, 01201. Include your first and last name and your mailing address. Good luck, and happy reading!

WHAT WE'RE READING NEXT ...

Next month's book club is going to be a "staff picks" edition in which Eagle staffers recommend one book that they've read outside of the book club's required reading.


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.



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