The Snow Queen
By Michael Cunningham
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux May 2014
From the library
Tyler and Barrett are brothers sharing a Brooklyn apartment. They both take care of Tyler's girlfriend Beth, who is slowly dying of cancer. While neither of them are leading lives they would call good, there is a comfort to the consistency...until something incredible happens. One snowy night, Barrett sees strange lights in the sky. He doesn't believe in God, but he is convinced that the lights are a message to him. Almost imperceptibly, their lives begin to change.
Barrett and Tyler are both stuck in repetitive mediocrity. Barrett had dreams of doing something great, but now he spends his days working in a vintage clothing shop. He believes that he is happy doing that, but his need to repeat that over and over again makes the reader wonder if he is really trying to convince himself. Tyler is a small time musician who dreams of writing one perfect song for his wife. But he only seems to find inspiration under the influence of drugs. Despite the repeated requests by his brother and friends to stop, he keeps using with the hope of finding some peace and the perfect tune and lyrics.
In The Snow Queen, Cunningham seems to be hitting readers over the head with his themes and his political views. Tyler becomes a mouthpiece for liberal anger with frequent swipes at Bush, Cheney, and anyone with the audacity to vote Republican. While there were certainly people around the 2004 with plenty of indignation, it wears thin very quickly and seems to be one of the few character traits that Tyler possesses.
Conversely, readers who want to see Cunningham develop his allusion to the title fairy tale will be disappointed. In the beginning of the story, Tyler stands in front of an open window enjoying the snow falling over the city. Something sharp gets in his eye, just as Kai in the original fairy tale was pierced by the little splinter. But then Cunninham seems to just let the allusion go and there is little, if anything, that calls the fairy tale to mind after that point.
Reading The Snow Queen will certainly expose you to Cunningham's beautiful sentences and carefully designed scenes. And there are several insightful moments about how we make friends into family and maintain relationships over time. But the characters are quickly forgettable and their search for meaning in their lives will not give you any new insight into yours. If you want to read a Michael Cunningham book, pick up his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours.