Michael Cunningham: The Snow Queen (2014)

The Snow Queen

Michael Cunningham’s luminous, compassionate new novel begins with a vision.

It’s November 2004. Barrett Meeks, having lost love yet again, is walking through Central Park when he is suddenly and inexplicably inspired to look up at the sky, where he sees a pale, translucent light that seems to regard him in a distinctly godlike way. Although Barrett doesn’t believe in visions – or in god, for that matter – he can’t deny what he’s seen.

At the same time, in the not-quite-gentrified Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Beth, who’s engaged to Barrett’s older brother ,Tyler, is dying of colon cancer. Beth, Tyler, and Barrett have cobbled together a more or less happy home. Tyler, a struggling musician with a drug problem, is trying and failing to write a wedding song for his wife-to-be – something that will be not merely a sentimental ballad but an enduring expression of eternal love.

Barrett, haunted by the light, turns unexpectedly to religion. Tyler grows increasingly convinced that only drugs can release his deepest creative powers. Beth tries to face mortality with as much courage and stoicism as she can summon.

One night, after having been dumped by his boyfriend via text message, Barrett is walking through Central Park when he sees a light. He’s pretty sure it’s of divine origin and looking down on him. He’s not the only one in his entourage who would benefit from divine intervention. He shares an apartment with his older bother Tyler, an unsuccessful musician with a drug problem, and his soon-to-be sister-in law Beth who has colon cancer. Both could do with some divine assistance.

The Snow Queen starts shortly before Christmas. It snows constantly and the images Cunningham creates are lovely and haunting. Tyler standing at the open window, while the snow swirls into the room full of old broken objects. Beth who wears only white and goes for a solitary walk. Liz and Andrew who do drugs until the early morning and stand on the top of the roof talking.

Barrett was once a wunderkind, someone who promised to be great one day. A scholar, a writer, someone who would leave a mark. Nowadays he’s happy to be a shop assistant in Beth’s and Liz’s vintage clothes shop. He doesn’t see himself as a failure when it comes to his career but he definitely sees himself as failure when it comes to love.

Tyler, the addict, struggles hard to write the perfect song for his wedding. He’s sure that a small bit of cocaine occasionally will help him. But occasionally is just an addict’s way of saying “I’ll stop soon”. And he always stops – until the next time, which comes invariably.

Liz is the oldest of the group of friends. She’s over fifty and still dating young men in their twenties. When they leave her for younger women she doesn’t care. It’s part of the plan, part of never settling.

We follow the four characters over the course of four years and see each of them come to terms with their life choices. They are drifters who have to learn that what they wanted in life might not have been the thing that would really make them happy.

I’m not sure what to think of this novel. I’ve read it in one sitting and some of the images are still vivid but it was also quite lame. I’ve read two of Cunningham’s novels A Home at the End of the World and The Hours. I loved both but this one left me puzzled. The writing is airy and precise, the images he creates are haunting but overall it’s so fluffy. And most of the time I felt like I’ve read something similar somewhere before. I even had a shock moment while working out, watching TV, and an episode of Sex and the City came on. A lot in this episode resembled The Snow Queen. I must say I like him better when he recycles Virginia Woolf. I also have no idea why he chose the title. Tyler get’s a snow splinter in his eye at the beginning but apart from that and the snow-heavy first chapters, there’s no link. Another possible inspiration might have been Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, with which it has more than one element in common.

With the exception of one critic most were raving about this book. I agree that the writing is lovely and the descriptions of addiction are extremely well done. Nonetheless, I need a bit more than a person seeing a light which is never explained and a couple of drifters accepting that life isn’t as grand as they thought it would be. Read it if you want to read an ode to resignation in a snowy setting.

28 thoughts on “Michael Cunningham: The Snow Queen (2014)

  1. It sounds like a heartwarming and life-affirming movie waiting to be made.

    since I rather dislike my heart being warmed and my life affirmed I think I’ll pass.

    Good review though. One question, why did you choose to quote the blurb rather than an excerpt?

    • Thanks, Max. Lol. Heartwarming in a muffled way though. Lukewarm. I often quote the blurb when the books are very new and I don’t feel particularly inclined to summarise. But, yes I could have quoted.

    • have to laugh at Max’s comment: I always pass at any heart-warming. I also read The Hours and enjoyed it a great deal, but I’ll pass on this. Thanks for the review .

  2. I’ve been thinking lately that a lot of books seem to be written with a view to them being made into a film and that the author probably has a screenplay ready in the bottom drawer, just in case! I don’t like the sound of this – the characters are a bit improbable for my realist taste, I suppose – and I can’t say that I find snow attractive. I’ve seen it twice in my life and it was cold and slippery! 🙂

    • I like the idea of snow, not the actual thing. In this case it felt as if he wrote about it with people who love it in mind.
      The charcaters were OK but that light thing didn’t work. Coming from someone who loves fantasy and the like that might come as a surprise but there was just no real logic to it. Supernatural or otherwise.
      The novel’s a dud.

  3. I think that I agree with your point of needing more.

    A story like this needs something distinctive or out of the box to hold my interest.

    I do also laugh, mostly at myself, when I read stories like this. I am such a rationalist thinker. if I saw such a light I think that I would be approaching it from a scientific point of view. I would be listing every possibility, trying to calculating the odds for each one, looking for physical evidence, etc. A character who was like me would ruin the narrative!

    • It was decidedly fluffy.
      He does try to rule out a few possibilities but then he really wants to believe the light is a sign from God as that’s what he needs. I’m not sure Cunningham bought his own idea that’w hwy it wasn’t convincing, I’d say.

  4. I have this one on my TBR pile…seems like I will have to wait to be in the right mood for it.

    Snow is a nickname for cocaine…which may explain the title choice?

    • That’s true but there’s a quote of Andersen’s Snow Queen at the beginning. He does want to retell that fairy tale but it’s not clear what for.
      I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

  5. It is interesting that you mentioned Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude in relation to this book. I really enjoyed Fortress of Solitude — I think it’s his best book. So spot on evoking Brooklyn in the 1970s. I’m not sure that this one would be up to the task. It sounds like there are too many allegories without settling on any one in particular, making the reader feel a bit disconnected.

    • I was planning on reading Fortress of Solitude and when I picked it up and read the blurb I felt Cunningham used it in parts. But then again, many New York books have similarities. I’m glad you liked Lethem’s book.
      This book is set now and he explores another part of Brooklyn. I feel that the idea behind it all wasn’t all that well developed nad what was, seemed like a lot that’s been done before.

  6. I’ve been curious about this one as I seem to come across ads for it everywhere I look, but as I have never read him before, maybe it is not the best place to start? I do like snowy imagery, however, and in the hottest months of summer (soon to be coming) it might not be a bad thing to have something on hand that makes me feel ‘cold’. I don’t necessarily mind reading something slight (depending on mood) if the writing is lovely and the imagery vivid–but definitely need to be in the mood and know what I am getting into…..

    • He has written far better books and there’s always the risk that if you don’t like this, you might not read the rest. I would really recommend The Hours. I’m pretty sure you’d like that a great deal. And then you could always read this one, having in mind that A Home at the End of the World is similar but far better.
      I just finished Mary Hocking’s In the Very Dead of Winter. -That’s a perfect wintry read and one I’m sure you’d love. 🙂

  7. Wonderful review, Caroline! Nice to know that you loved Michael Cunningham’s prose and the initial snowy scenes in the book, though you didn’t like the rest of the book as much as you had hoped to. I wish Cunningham had worked the snow theme more deeper into the book. These days I find that when a writer comes up with a new novel after a long time, critics rave about it irrespective of how the novel is. I want to read Cunningham’s ‘A Home at the End of the World’ sometime.

  8. I wondered about this one myself, but only because I really liked the idea of the Snow Queen being a symbol within it. So….. I will probably pass. Druggies and cancer sufferers are among the groups that, fairly or not, I’m less keen to read about.

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