The Snow Queen is a fairy tale, an erotic excursion, and an in-depth plunge into the abyss of loving other souls. Michael Cunningham, one of the America’s greatest contemporary writers, doesn't believe in shortchanging the reader. In his latest thought-provoking, deeply layered book about sadness, loss, love and grief, each word and phrase is hand-picked and arranged with the care and craft of a master-class storyteller.
Strong-willed yet fragile, Barrett Meeks doesn't particularly want to move on. A “figure of tragic ardency,” Barrett wants to live on in his memories, dismissing anyone who attempts to wedge their way into his orderly existence. He can't stand that life and time are moving forward and exerting a control on the only things dear to him: his coke-addicted, middle-aged musician brother, Tyler, and Tyler’s dying wife, Beth, who remains bedridden in a shabby apartment on a frozen corner of Garrett and Thames in a haunted, half-empty neighborhood of New York.
Beth’s Stage-Four cancer has led the two brothers to take refuge in themselves and each other as they’re forced to cope with a new set of circumstances: a messy life that has culminated in an odd assortment of lost chances and cancelled plans. As Barrett, this “a soldier of love,” walks across Central Park, looking at text messages from yet another lost love, he finally realizes that he will never witness that “pure careless passion.” Suddenly looking up, Barrett sees an apparition in the night sky. It becomes a light that he interprets as a metaphysical force, perhaps a sign that only increases his deep longing to join his brother and sister-in-law in a kind of suspended life he’s previously been denied.
The bleakness of tone and setting is the novel’s strength, carried through in Manhattan’s coated silver and gray snow. Scenes play out in a kind of gaunt beauty as the snow shifts like a benign force, blowing onto the East River where the barges plow whitened “like ships of ice.” Often menacing, and sometimes beautiful with an otherworldly force, the snow seems to imprison Tyler, Barrett, Beth, and sexy, seductive Liz, who manages the vintage clothing store where Barrett dutifully works. There’s a constant sense that Cunningham’s characters have compromised but are still living on in a kind of fragile hope. Each sees the other as living for a dream that can never be realized. Each obviously loves the other, but there’s a wedge between them, and an uneasy love that seems quite impossible to break.
Perpetually laced up on morphine, Beth is like a Victorian sleepwalker, “alabaster in her white nightgown.“ She’s plagued by the choices of a woman no longer able to depend on the spring and moistness of health. Tyler faces a similar conundrum: his brain may be “snapped dry by coke,” but he’s finally come to terms with his “eroticized chastity.” Full of the sting of forgiveness and a mission that is suddenly all clarity and purpose, Tyler wants to write a beautiful, meaningful song for his dying girlfriend and find a better apartment in a less baleful neighborhood. Barrett’s best efforts to preserve their lives together is like throwing up walls. Between his own insecurities and his litany of lovers who refuse to stick around for any longer than a month, Barrett has yet to permit himself to imagine that his celestial manifestation could possibly be connected to Beth’s inexplicable remission.
Liz knows the story of human desire “in all its squeamish particulars.” She may have finally realized that she is wasting her time, seeing yet “another sexy silly boy” who sticks around until he comes to his senses and goes off with a girl his own age. She manages for a time, only to fall prey to charming younger Andrew, who thrives sexually and has a magnetic pull that makes it utterly impossible for Liz to say no. As Liz comes forward and out of herself, she crashes again and again into the messy lives of Tyler, Barrett, Andrew and Beth.
Beginning in 2004 on the eve of George W. Bush’s reelection, a feeling of doom permeates this rather depressing novel, though Cunningham writes many lovely vignettes of humans in flux. At once a meditation on death and sexuality, at its best The Snow Queen considers the vague and imperfect ways we can know or understand someone or something. Later sections follow the characters through the years to New Year’s Eve 2006, where Beth has miraculously been healed, and on to 2008, where the promise of “change” is just upon the horizon. Here Tyler and Barrett’s hopes are designed to be trampled in an image of a future that’s probably not that much more than clownish, cloudy optimism.
Hard to imagine a future for this group of mismatched, neurotic people, with the angst and reality of their hard circumstances always as sharp as the jagged rocks of a cliff walk. In urgent, well-crafted chapters, Cunningham brings the past and present together to portray a world that offers more than Tyler and Barrett have ever hoped for, given the snow-blown streets, the inevitable march of time, and a woman under the spell of her own obsessions.