In Glaciers, Alexis Smith’s marvel of a novel, the protagonist, Isabel, points out that there is much joy to be found in the mundane:
It’s a strange product of infatuation, she thinks. To want to tell someone about mundane things. The awareness of another person suddenly sharpens your senses, so that the little things come into focus and the world seems more beautiful and complicated. In her debut novel, Alexis Smith shines light on these “little things,” thereby transforming Isabel’s world into something more beautiful yet complicated.
Isabel grew up in Alaska before moving to Portland, Oregon, where she now works as a librarian repairing old books. Glaciers traces one day in Isabel’s life, giving us precious peeks into her silent longing for a co-worker, Spoke, and her quiet contentment with the life she has built for herself. Isabel has a special longing for ephemera, miscellenaeous objects that she has collected over the years and onto which Isabel transcribes her own imagined stories. It’s like trying on another life, she realizes.
As the day progresses, Isabel musters the courage to ask Spoke out to a dance party she has been invited to; she shops for the perfect dress for the party. In the slim novel, Smith also gives us glimpses of Isabel’s childhood—one in which she is beset with doubts about her self-image and grapples with the fallout from her parents’ divorce.
Isabel is especially endearing because she holds on to the romantic ideal of a life well-lived and appreciated till the very end. She finds romance and joy in the most basic facets of daily life, reminding us that there is a lot to be gained from stopping and smelling the roses.
The glaciers that Isabel remembers from her Alaska days work as beautiful metaphors for the story of Isabel’s life. Even if her life has had some significant fissures along the way, most dramatically by her parents separating, Isabel is wise enough to realize that such a life can supply its own freedoms. “This is calving—when part of a glacier breaks free and becomes an iceberg—a kind of birth,” she points out. Glaciers catches Isabel at that exact point in time in her life when she is trying to break free from her past and her baggage and undergo a whole new rebirth.
“Her story could be told in other people’s things. The postcards and the photographs. A garnet ring and a needlepoint of the Homestead. The aprons hanging from her kitchen door. Her soft, faded and dog-eared copy of The Little House in the Big Woods. A closet full of dresses sewn even before she was born,” Smith writes of Isabel, “All these things tell a story, but is it hers?” she asks. The answer is yes. For, at the end, you realize that Isabel will take these tools and her abilities and add her own special touch. The final product might be crafted with borrowed materials, but the tender love and labor are all hers.
In Glaciers, the character Isabel abandons writing for library science in college, at “the urging of her grandmother, who claimed there was no market for being in love with words.” Fortunately for us, her creator, Alexis Smith, knows better—for writing like this will always find a ready audience, its own “market.”