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Bear, by Julia Phillips

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This is not a fairy tale.

It’s clearly got “Snow White and Rose Red” very much in its DNA–there are two sisters and the love of a bear–but this is not a magic story, it is not transformative, it is not just rooted in reality but stays firmly put there. Elena and Sam have been barely scraping by, their mother getting sicker by the week. Their existence was always precarious, and the pandemic knocked a large dent in their hospitality industry jobs–and made them worry about bringing home an exposure to their mother’s fragile lungs.

When they find a bear on their front doorstep, it’s Sam’s first flicker of awareness that the sisters’ reactions to the world are not always attuned. She finds the giant beast’s presence terrifying. But Elena seems exhilarated, even seeking out the bear in the odd intervals that her overwhelmed schedule allows. As their mother’s condition deteriorates, Sam expected the two sisters to be relying on each other, but instead their differing reaction to the megafauna is only the beginning of the wedge between them.

If you’re frustrated and appalled by people treating actual bears like teddy bears, this book will not disappoint you. Terrible decisions related to bears, finances, interpersonal relationships, whatever, are recognized as such by the narrative and not rewarded. As such it’s not always a cheerful book–but the unfolding of the tragedy is vivid, sharply observed, and incredibly realistic about aspects of contemporary life that are often genteelly ignored.

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