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Cunningham re-imagines 'The Snow Queen'

Posted: May 7, 2014 - 11:03pm

“The Snow Queen” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Michael Cunningham

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 latest boyfriend and is so broke he’s moved into Tyler and Beth’s shabby/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 focus and 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 frozen 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 folktale 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.

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