43 pages 1 hour read

Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Disappearing Earth (2019) is a debut novel by Julia Phillips published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, a division of Penguin Random House. This cross-genre novel combines elements of Mystery, Thriller, Women’s Fiction, and Literary Fiction. In 2019, it was a National Book Award finalist for fiction, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, and a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. New York Times Book Review named it one of the top ten books of 2019. The novel is set in Kamchatka, a remote peninsula in far-eastern Russia, where Phillips spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in 2011.

The title, Disappearing Earth, comes from a story related in the opening and closing chapters about a seaside village that a tsunami suddenly washes away. It also alludes to two key aspects of the book: the disappearance of two young sisters, Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, which occurs at the outset of the novel, and the strong sense of place the author creates in subsequent chapters. The book contains 13 chapters, all but one of which is titled after a month of the year (Chapter 6, “New Year’s”). Phillips writes from a third person free indirect point of view, providing a common voice that guides readers through Kamchatka and the lives of its inhabitants.

The novel has an unconventional narrative structure. Rather than focusing on the search for the two missing girls, it progresses month by month in the year they vanish, with each chapter shifting the perspective from one Kamchatkan woman to another. Rather than telling one story, then, it tells many stories. With its multiple viewpoints and wide cast of characters, the novel reads more like a series of loosely related vignettes rather than a cohesive, linear narrative. At the end of the book, however, the author returns to the primary mystery and ties the chapters and characters together.

Phillips provides readers with glimpses into the lives of a diverse group of women inhabiting the remote Kamchatka peninsula. Her richly drawn characters include a bookish college student, a housewife, and a scientist. Some women are ethnically Russian, while others belong to the indigenous Even tribe. Some characters are closely connected to the disappearance of the Golosovskaya girls, others only tangentially so.

Plot Summary

The book opens on a warm August day with the Golosovskaya sisters playing at the edge of the bay in the city of Petropavlovsk, the capital of Kamchatka, while their mother, Marina Alexandrovna, is at work. A stranger approaches them, complaining of a twisted ankle. He offers the girls a ride home after they help him to his car. The girls realize they are in grave danger when the man takes Alyona’s cell phone and passes the turn to their house.

Valentina, is a xenophobic woman who misses the days when Kamchatka was populated with only Russians. She has a blister on chest that she leaves festering for a year before having an emergency removal surgery. When the girls went missing Valentina Nikolaevna suggested to lieutenant in charge of the that they left the island with their father.

Oksana, a researcher at the volcanological institute, witnessed the Golosovskaya sisters entering Yegor Gusakov’s vehicle. She believes the investigators don’t take her seriously because she’s a woman. Her marriage is failing, and she is devastated when her dog, Malysh, runs away.

Alla Innokentevna is an indigenous woman and mother to Lillia, a young girl who disappeared three years prior. The police never took her daughter’s disappearance seriously, and she has always believed that Lillia is dead.

Sergei, or Chegga, is a photographer who’s also experiencing marital problems. When he speaks with the missing sisters’ mother, Marina, he connects all three girls’ disappearance to Yegor Gusakov.

As the story closes, Alyona is comforting Sophia by telling her the rest of the tsunami story. They are locked in a room in Yegor’s house, and Lilia is screaming in the next room. Unbeknownst to the sisters, the police are searching the home.

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