Book Review: The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham’s luminous novel begins with a vision. It’s November 2004. Barrett Meeks, having lost love yet again, is walking through Central Park when he is inspired to look up at the sky; there he sees a pale, translucent light that seems to regard him in a distinctly godlike way. Barrett doesn’t believe in visions—or in God—but he can’t deny what he’s seen.
At the same time, in the not-quite-gentrified Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Tyler, Barrett’s older brother, a struggling musician, is trying—and failing—to write a wedding song for Beth, his wife-to-be, who is seriously ill. Tyler is determined to write a song that will be not merely a sentimental ballad but an enduring expression of love.
Barrett, haunted by the light, turns unexpectedly to religion. Tyler grows increasingly convinced that only drugs can release his creative powers. Beth tries to face mortality with as much courage as she can summon.
Cunningham follows the Meeks brothers as each travels down a different path in his search for transcendence. In subtle, lucid prose, he demonstrates a profound empathy for his conflicted characters and a singular understanding of what lies at the core of the human soul.
The Snow Queen is a slice of life that follows brothers Tyler and Barrett and their friends for a few years in the mid-2000s. There isn’t that much of a plot. Yes, Barrett sees the light and turns to religion but that all that entails is going to church a few times. Tyler’s struggle to write Beth the perfect song is a more developed plotline but not the focus of the story either. One thing I really appreciated is that it was a non-issue that Barrett is gay. He wasn’t a stereotype – he was just another character in the book that happened to be gay.
What makes this a great book is Cunningham’s astounding prose. He can craft a beautiful metaphor or description for even the most mundane object or smallest gesture. It was actually a bit over the top at times. But most of the time, I loved it. I think listening to it aloud made the writing sound even more poetic than if I had read the print copy.
I also liked how the story would skip ahead in time at points and the reader learned what had happened in the intervening time though the characters recollections. This kept the book from getting too bogged down in details and was a great device to summarize portions of the story.
Claire Danes is the perfect narrator for this book. A lesser narrator might have sounded droning reading the lengthy, meandering metaphors. Danes is obviously a phenomenal actress and read the entire book with subtle emotion that served to make the language even more beautiful. It was almost hypnotic to listen to.
After listening to this book, I’d love to read Cunningham’s backlist. He is definitely a talented, original writer.
(I received this book courtesy of the publisher.)