No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, January 15, 2006

#2: The Ice Queen -- Alice Hoffman

This novel steals from many fairy-tales, though it isn't a retelling of any specific story. The 'ice queen' is the narrator; orphaned early, she grows up believing that she caused her mother's death by wishing. For a while it does seem that her wishes are coming true -- and they're not cheerful, feelgood wishes, but the kind of wish that wrecks lives. And meanwhile, she's built a wall of ice between her and everyone dear to her: her brother, her lover, her dying grandmother.

Grandmother dies: ice-girl heads for Florida, and yes, she melts in the heat: or rather, suffers a freak accident, the effects of which change her for good. She's forced to see things differently; finds herself taking a gradual -- then obsessive -- interest in others; and yet she's still reading the world as though it's a fairytale. And it's very definitely a Grimm version, rather than a happy-ending Andersen. (Actually, I'd beg to differ here: I'd say that Andersen's tales are grim and nasty in quite a different, and rather less wholesome way.)

And yet, past all the stories of girls who wear red, lovers who won't let you see them at night, years of a life traded for new beginnings, girls on the outside looking in, the new tale of a girl frozen in ice, aphorisms and morals and riddles -- "have it once and you can have it again," "be careful what you wish for" -- there is a happy ending: the ice melts, the girl resumes her journey, she moves on, she leaves the past behind.

This is a gorgeously written book, full of subtle observation and the kind of image, act, thought that resonates with fragmentary memories of fairytales. It's not necessarily an easy book: I suspect it would repay multiple rereadings, revealing an elegance of structure and symmetry that I only suspect after one reading. If there's a moral, it's that not everything fits into the stories you construct for yourself; and yet everything, everyone, has a story.

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