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'Snow Queen' re-imagined in new novel

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‘The Snow Queen'

Author: Michael Cunningham

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 273 pages, $26

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Ann Levin
Saturday, May 17, 2014, 8:42 p.m.
 

Like the Disney megahit “Frozen,” Michael Cunningham's new novel is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”

It centers on two brothers who wrestle with the trade-offs between the satisfactions of an ordinary life — “you witness ... you persevere” — versus those of “building a big-deal career.”

Tyler, a talented musician in his early 40s, struggles to write songs so he can get a recording contract. When the novel opens, he's caring for his wife-to-be Beth, who may be dying of cancer.

His younger brother, Barrett, has just been dumped by his boyfriend and is so broke he's moved into Tyler and Beth's bohemian apartment in the not-yet-gentrified Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn, circa 2004 — “another of New York's just-barelies,” Cunningham writes.

Once considered a prodigy, Barrett, too, seeks greatness, perhaps as a writer. But he's wasted years bumming around the country, then pursuing a Ph.D. in literature. His fatal flaw? He lacks the ability “to choose, and persist.”

Each brother embarks on a different road to salvation. Tyler turns to drugs, believing they give him the clarity he needs for his art. Barrett, a lapsed Catholic, returns to religion — in a low-key sort of way — after seeing a “celestial light” over Central Park.

In the original fairy tale, an evil troll has created a magic mirror that only reflects the ugliness of the world. When it shatters into pieces, two splinters lodge in a little boy. He becomes negative, carping — like a critic! — more interested in the artifice of snowflakes than real life. One day, he's whisked away by the Snow Queen to her castle, where he's destined to languish on a frozen lake called the Mirror of Reason unless he's rescued by his sweet-tempered, loyal playmate Gerda.

Cunningham weaves elements of this iconic Danish folk tale into the narrative — Tyler may be a stand-in for the boy — employing the once-upon-a-time register of children's tales. The writing is often fresh and evocative: newly fallen snow offers a “hint of benediction,” Barrett's ex resembles those “lithe, innocent young athletes adoringly painted by Thomas Eakins.”

Cunningham — who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Virginia Woolf homage “The Hours” — is a prodigious talent, but his language can also be overwrought and obscure. At one point, he has Tyler worry that his lyrics amount to “adolescent romanticism.” He might worry about that, as well.

Ann Levin is a staff writer for the Associated Press.

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