Day 648: The Snow Queen

Cover for The Snow QueenAlthough The Snow Queen is marketed as Michael Cunningham’s reworking of the classic fairy tale, the novel actually alludes to it more than rewrites it. Tyler Meek gets an ice crystal in his eye as does the main character of the fairy tale, so we know he will not be able to see clearly. The Snow Queen herself is the drugs Tyler takes.

The novel begins with Tyler’s younger brother Barrett walking home through a snowstorm. He has just been dumped by his lover by means of an abrupt text and is wondering what he did wrong. In his mid-40’s, Barrett, although a Yale graduate who had a seemingly bright future before him, has been unable to settle to any one thing. He has lost his apartment and now lives with Tyler and his girlfriend Beth and works as a clerk in a store.

Barrett notices an odd light above him in the sky and feels that it is looking back at him. This experience seems so extraordinary to him that he half fears he imagined it and doesn’t at first tell anyone about it.

At home, Tyler awakes to find the room full of snow because he and Beth left the window open. Tyler, Beth, and Barrett live in an ugly apartment in a shabby neighborhood in New York City. Tyler’s dreams of being a musician have ended with him working as a bartender and being allowed to play a couple of nights a week.

Tyler is trying to write a song for Beth for their wedding. Beth has liver cancer, and she presently is getting no better or worse. Tyler obsesses with the song and with the impending 2004 re-election of George Bush rather than trying to get himself off drugs, as he promised Beth. Now, he has begun lying about the drugs.

For a few months, Beth gets better. Barrett attributes her recovery in some part to his exchange with the light and begins attending church. Tyler, who has been good at taking care of Beth, feels a bit like he has lost his purpose.

Cunningham has written an intimate portrait of the two brothers in his masterly style. He forces us to examine our notions about success and failure and insightfully depicts Tyler’s growing dependence on the drugs. However, the story about the brothers and their friends isn’t really compelling, and the female characters are deficient. Beth is a palely drawn angel, and the only other important female character, Liz, looks too much like her opposite. Other characters seem to be there just to populate the novel. After the stunning The Hours, I found The Snow Queen disappointing.

Related Posts

The Hours

The Goldfinch

Boy, Snow, Bird

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4 thoughts on “Day 648: The Snow Queen

  1. Naomi January 27, 2015 / 1:45 pm

    OK, I will read The Hours. I saw the movie a long time ago, and then didn’t want to read the book. But, I think it’s been long enough now that I’ve forgotten it. The Snow Queen has such a pretty cover that I want it to be good!

    • whatmeread January 27, 2015 / 1:49 pm

      See, now, I wanted to read The Hours after seeing the movie. That’s an interesting reaction. Did you think seeing the movie would spoil the book? Not only did it make me read The Hours, it also made me read Mrs. Dalloway, which trust me, for me was much harder. On The Snow Queen, I always have to say that other people might like it better than I did. I just thought it was so-so. Of course, he is an excellent writer.

      • Naomi January 27, 2015 / 2:01 pm

        I wasn’t worried it would be ruined, just not as good. I haven’t read Mrs. dalloway yet, either. Should I read that one first?

      • whatmeread January 27, 2015 / 2:13 pm

        I don’t know. I liked The Hours much better. It might make you appreciate how cleverly The Hours reworks the material if you read Mrs. Dalloway first, but I read them the other way around but close enough so that I could see it in retrospect. When I saw the movie and read the book, I was more interested in how it the three stories fit together. But once I read Mrs. Dalloway, I was also interested in how he reworked the material.

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