Michael Cunningham's provocative book, The Snow Queen, shares the same title as the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about good and evil but veers far from the classic story. Within a contemporary context, his novel explores the gray areas between the two extremes: the vicissitudes of ordinary existence that capriciously elevate or deplete the human soul.
Cunningham is the author of many novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours, published in 1998, and By Nightfall, released in 2010. The Snow Queen explores similar themes from these earlier works: brotherhood, marriage, middle age, gay and straight relationships, and caring for a dying loved one. The novel also fully possesses his distinctive style that matured after his poignant 1990 debut A Home at the End of the World. In this most recent offering, Cunningham's prose is meticulously crafted. His ruminations about relationships — their messiness and their seemingly small but magnificent joys — are astonishingly insightful. His honesty can be wrenching, yet his compassion and humor are plentiful (as are his parenthetical remarks, by now familiar to his fans).
Imbued throughout with wintery details, the novel opens on a cold November night in 2004. Thirty-eight-year-old Barrett Meeks is walking alone, "crunching over ice-coated silver-gray snow" through Central Park, when he looks up and sees a celestial light, pale aqua in color, what he thinks, at first, must be a "freakish southerly appearance of the aurora borealis." Whether the translucent light — which appears to him four days after he's been dumped, via text message, by his boyfriend — is merely "a blip...just one of those things," or something more significant in meaning, sets this questing family story on its mysterious, and ultimately revelatory, course.
Early on we learn that Barrett lives in Brooklyn, in the "placidly impoverished neighborhood" of Bushwick (see 'Beyond the Book') with his 43-year-old brother, Tyler, and Beth, his fiancée. Beth is dying of cancer, has lost her hair from chemo, and resembles Andersen's Snow Queen only by her manner of dress — all white — when she's strong enough to venture outside. Beth seems, at first, to be one of Cunningham's most sympathetic and simple characters to date. She bakes. She has fashion sense. She's an avid reader. She's "kind to just about everyone" and, despite her cancer diagnosis, insists "on living in the most generous and abundant possible world." With time, however, her disease — being "marveled at" — causes her to change, to doubt herself, in unexpected ways.
Tyler, meanwhile, is a struggling musician and vitriolic liberal whose nickname, "Mister No Fun," inspires within him simultaneous embarrassment and pride. He also uses cocaine, which provides for him the "sting of livingness" as he lovingly cares for Beth, who remains unaware of his addiction. For a while at least, so does Barrett, a Yale grad with a "capacious and quirky mind," whose post-graduation years were spent driving around the country, working menial jobs, and floundering in a myriad other ways. After losing his apartment and lacking funds for a new one, he's ended up with Tyler and Beth. Though he loves and dotes on his brother, Tyler reveals too, his opinion that Barrett has become "another of New York's just-barelies," who lacks "the ability to choose, and persist." Mid-life, Barrett is working retail, selling unique but semi-affordable objects and garments like "paper-thin leathers" and "jewel-dusted scarves." In his downtime, he rereads Madame Bovary, his favorite novel.
Similar to his previous works, Cunningham masterfully articulates the painful truths about the complexities of love shared between or among friends, lovers, and families. About Beth, for instance, whom Barrett adores, he admits to himself "a terrible thing." He finds sometimes he wants Beth either to recover or die because the phases in between — "the endless waiting, the uncertainty," as well as the barrage of doctors, mainly "upsettingly young" who "purely and simply, don't know what's going to work" are excruciating to bear.
Though Cunningham's narrative is deeply affecting in many sections, the book tends to lack a strong cohesion. In a few too many places, questionable choices particularly with storylines involving a larger cast beyond Barrett, Tyler, and Beth distract from the novel's more compelling elements. Also disconcerting, at times, is Cunningham's inclusion of theological questions and themes, which serve mainly as set-ups for clever but limited dialogue rather than resonant contemplations.
At its core, however, The Snow Queen is about searching: for clarity, miracles, faith, love, and meaningful work. Despite some flaws, the book is a sensitively rendered story in which significance, even hope, might be found in a stunning night sky yet also may be present closer to home, just waiting to be discovered.
This review was originally published in July 2014, and has been updated for the May 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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