Alice Hoffman: The Ice Queen (2005)

I don’t know many writers whose first sentences draw you into a novel like Alice Hoffman does

Be careful what you wish for. I know that for a fact. Wishes are brutal unforgiving things. They burn your tongue the moment they are spoken and you can never turn them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you. I’ve made far too many wishes in my lifetime, the first when I was eight years old.

This is the lesson the narrator learns when she is still a little girl at the beginning of Alice Hoffman’s novel The Ice Queen. In a moment of intense anger she wishes her mother dead. A few hours later she and her brother are informed that their mother has died in a car accident. This freezes the narrator’s heart. Nobody will ever be allowed to approach her emotionally, she is shut down. She will live like a spectator, never get involved. When she is older she becomes a librarian, lives with her grandmother, has a lover, a policeman. Apart from being interested in all the possible ways someone can die, her life is uneventful. When her grandmother passes away, she decides to leave New Jersey and move to Florida where her brother lives.

She finds a job at the local library and resumes her uneventful life until she is struck by lightning. That changes everything. She joins a local support group and makes friends with a fellow lightning strike victim, Renny. When she hears of Seth, the man who is called Lazarus, because he returned from the dead, she starts to develop an obsession and finally follows him until he lets her into his house and his heart. The relationship they begin is one of intense passion and not very healthy. They are both initially trying to hide dark secrets from each other but ultimately their relationship will help them reveal and accept them.

The Ice Queen is a peculiar story. To some extent it is a re-imagination of  Andersen’s fairy tale The Ice Queen but many other tales have been incorporated and are mentioned throughout the book. Beauty and the Beast is as important as Amor & Psyche. And fairy tales are also present as topic. The narrator speaks about them, mentions them.

The main character isn’t very appealing, I can’t say I ever sympathized with her and her life much but I learned a world of things I didn’t know about lightning strike victims. How tragic it is, how much your life can be altered by it, the wounds, the scars. The worst that happens to the narrator is that she looses the ability to see the color red. This triggers the love story with Seth because she dresses and behaves differently just because all that was formerly red to her looks white. It’s amazing to imagine something like this and I found it fascinating to see the world described through the eyes of someone who sees white instead of all the shades of red. While it seems visual problems are common in lightning strike victims,  I’m not so sure something like this could happen but I was equally not sure that people could get so-called lightning figures that make them look as if whole trees had been burned into their skin. But then I looked it up and as amazing as it may seem, the phenomenon, which is called Lichtenberg figures, really exists (the link will guide you to some photos).

While as a whole this is one of the rare Alice Hoffman novels that didn’t work for me so much, there were a lot of amazing elements, as usual. One of the main characters, Renny, believes that every person has a defining secret and that it makes him or her tick. It’s an interesting concept and the novel elaborates on it.

I also liked the aspect that the narrator is a librarian and that for her each library card represents a person’s secrets. She thinks the information on it is as personal as diary entries.

What people read revealed so much about them that she considered our card catalog a treasure house of privileged secrets; each card contained the map of an individual’s soul.

I have read quite a lot of Alice Hoffman’s novels and find her a fascinating writer. Unusual and captivating and highly quotable. This isn’t one of her best in my opinion but it’s not bad at all. I just didn’t care much for the narrator and the story is based more on themes than plot which makes it somewhat disparate.

Of all the Hoffman novels I read so far I liked Seventh Heaven, Turtle Moon and The River King best. Second Nature and Here on Earth follow closely but I cared less for Practical Magic and Illumination Night.

Which is your favourite book by Alice Hoffman?

The review is a contribution to Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. I am glad I made it. I had a list with several books and wanted to read at least one. I’ve read one and half. While book two – Patricia Mc Killip’s Solstice Wood – is much better than The Ice Queen, I will not be able to finish it this month.

36 thoughts on “Alice Hoffman: The Ice Queen (2005)

  1. Caroline: I’ve read any Hoffman books and to be honest haven’t ever taken a close look as I’ve had the impression (picked up somehow) that they’re too emo for me. The review seems to endorse my somehow-garnered opinion–although I realise she has a considerable fan base.

  2. It’s so strange to imagine not being able to see a particular color. You’d think it’s a silly thing to fuss about, but if you think about it, it could totally alter the way you see the world.
    Lovely review! Do visit!

    • Thanks Amritoroupa. I thought it was a fascinating concept. Her books are full of ideas like that. And, something I didn’t mention, she is amazingly quotable.
      I visit regularly but for one reason or the other you never see my comments. 😦

  3. I have never read a book by Alice Hoffman, but after reading your review, Caroline, I think I will. I think the cover of this book is so beautiful, I would buy it immediately when I saw it somewhere.
    Tthanks for your review.

    • You’re welcome, nadie. If you like her you are in for a treat as she has a way of writing which is quite unusual. I know it’s called magic realism and that certainly true to some extent. Should you want to try her, I would try Seventh Heaven.
      I also thought the cover was wonderful.

  4. I love Alice Hoffman, but I haven’t read any of your favorites – I will have to get The River King because I hear nothing but good things.

    • I hope you will like her. If you do you will find so many amazing books. Some are a bit similar like Secn nature and Here on Earth but they are still very good.
      Usually her openings are fanatstic and set the mood. This is an interesting one but not as magical as some of her others.

  5. I tried to read this when it first came out and remember returning it to the library unfinished. It was so long ago now that I can’t remember what it was about the story that put me off–maybe the unsympathetic narrator? I’ve only read Practical Magic–which again was so long ago that I don’t recall much about it. I seem to read so few American authors these days that I have been trying to make a concerted effort to pick up more books by contemporary American authors (but also classics), so maybe I should try and revisit her work. I do like now the idea of this being a retelling of fairy tales as I am getting into reading about myths. Then again maybe this is not the best example of her work to pick up.

    • It’s decidedly not the best and I can see how the narrator could put you off and there really isn’t much of a story. I still like it but maybe more because I’m so familiar with her writing and she has these amazing sentences. I could imagine The Dovekeeper would be one for you, although I haven’t read it yet.
      If you’d like to try her again, one of my three favourites would certainly appeal to you too.
      Practical Magic isn’t bad but a bit cold as well.

        • I’m looking forward to hear your thougths.
          She is one of those authors who will always work for me, one way or the other. I may not love all of her books but they all contain something I find fascinating.

  6. Great commentary as usual Caroline.

    Way back in the 1940s my farther was struck by lightning. As far as I know he had none of the bizarre symptoms. He used to say that it felt that he was hit with a thousand sledge hammers. He was knocked out and woke up with his hair burned.

  7. I read this a while ago and really liked it. Hoffman’s books are a bit hit and miss for me too, but I usually like what she writes. I loved White Horses so much that I’ve been too wary to re-read it in case it’s not as good as I remember. 🙂

    • I can relate to that feeling. I even dread reading other books by authors whose work I loved…
      I usually like her too, even this one but it wasn’t the “wow” effect some others had.
      I should read White Horses, then. It may be one of those which are difficult to get or I would probably have it on my monster pile already.

  8. I’ve never heard of her but I’d better stay away from her, I guess. Not my kind of book. I’m sorry this one was disappointing for you, though.

    I see she’s translated into French but it’s incredible to see so many different publishers for her novels (J’ai Lu, Gallimard Jeunesse, Actes Sud, JC Latès, Flammarion…) and of various quality. Surprising.

    • It pretty much reflects the diversity of her writing. While I’m not sure you would like this one, there are some earlier novels like Property Of you would maybe like.
      On the other hand, she is an amazing writer and it’s not fantasy per se.

  9. I’ve only read a couple of Hoffmann’s but I really like her. She’s one of the few authors I know who can ‘tell’ a story rather than ‘show’ it with resounding success. There’s something very fairy-tale-ish embedded in her voice. I own this one and am looking forward to reading it, but I also have Seventh Heaven to read and might pick that one up first since you preferred it.

    • I have a hard time to put my finger on what makes her writing so special. Magical elements, a mythical tone? Fairy tales. It’s for sure, she has her very own way and own vocie, somethign I think which is decidedly no small thing. Lookig forward to what you will think of Seventh Heaven.

  10. Nice review, Caroline! I haven’t read any of Alice Hoffman’s books, but it looks like she is quite a famous writer. I loved that line you have quoted – about how library cards can be a map to a person’s soul. I have never thought of it that way. It could be really true. It was also interesting to me to know that victims of lightning strikes might not be able to see the colour red. I can only imagine how their world will look like.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I think she has written more than one novel that would appeal to you.
      She is one of the most quotable writers I know. I discovered this two days ago
      But there are always intreesting ideas in her books as well like the one about the library cards. I think that it would be really great to be able to see people’s library cards.

      • Thanks for the link to the quotes from ‘The Ice Queen’, Caroline. I enjoyed reading them. I will try to read one of Alice Hoffman’s books one of these days. Which one(s) would you recommend?

  11. Interesting review, Caroline….tho it’s more like interesting info. I didn’t know the efect of lighting can be like that. very very interesting. Thank you for sharing that info.

    Ah…about that how books a person read can tell what the person, I wonder what kind of person I’d be for liking Stepen King too much 😉

    • I thought it was very interesting and I had nevre heard of anything like that before. Those tree figures (the veins obviously) are quite amazing.
      I think you could read a lot of different things into a library card. Yours could also say that you are a faithful perosn. Once you discover something, you are completely dedicated. Books and actors…;) And bands!

      • I have just realized I wrote terrible comment, in term of grammar and typo ;p lucky you still understand what I was trying to say.

        If my library card says I am a faithful person…that’s a nice thing. As long as it doesn’t make people think I am a person who likes cruel things 😉

        • There re always different ways to interpret something. I just thought yours would show many entries from the same authors and that says something as well.
          Don’t worry about the typos. I always press “post” before rereading my comments and I’m so bad at typing.

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