Of Hope and Devastation: Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Snow Queen’

snow_queen“A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.” So begins The Snow Queen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages), the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham. Like his previous novels, The Hours and By Nightfall, Cunningham combines delicate prose with poignant subject matter, exploring the themes of love and mortality through the relationships of his characters.

Beginning in 2004 on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, The Snow Queen tells the story of a group of friends across a span of four years, the narrative winding its way through the shifting dynamics of their lives and friendships. At the center of the story are Tyler and Barrett, two brothers who share a long history and an apartment in Brooklyn. Though seemingly opposite in nature, Tyler and Barrett’s close friendship speaks to the bond of a shared past and also highlights the illusory stability of the other relationships in the novel.

Complementing the brothers’ friendship is Tyler’s relationship with his girlfriend Beth, whose long-term illness is one of the focal points of the story and the glue that holds the group together. The fourth member of the Brooklyn quartet is Liz, a brassy middle-aged retail maven with a penchant for young lovers and a keen understanding of love’s capricious nature.

Shifting perspective between the four protagonists, The Snow Queen traces the path of their lives between 2004 and 2008, using political events to establish chronology and to evoke the frustrations they all share. As the friends suffer through illness, money problems and drug addiction, their parallel struggles interweave, making it impossible to read one against the other. Instead, the novel insists on the characters being considered as part and parcel of each other, the messiness of their lives a testament to a shared human experience.

By turns mournful and anticipatory, The Snow Queen balances on the knife point of faith and despair, repeatedly invoking the celestial light at the novel’s beginning as a way of asking whether magic is indeed possible. Though Barrett vacillates more often between these two states, it is Tyler who truly embodies their delicate balance when he hears a distant song, described as being evocative “of hope and devastation, as if they were the same thing: as if, in the vocabulary of this language, there were only one word to convey the two conditions.”

Created through song and thematically developed, the link between hope and devastation permeates the novel, making itself visible in every interaction. Living up to his literary legacy, Cunningham delivers a beautifully complex story through The Snow Queen, taking the reader on a difficult journey that is tinged with just a little bit of magic.

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