'Snow Queen' re-imagined in new novel
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Author McBride to talk books during Pittsburgh lecture
- Mystery writer Palumbo keeps his voice set in Western Pa.