Saturday, May 17, 2014

Life in the Snow Globe

The blurb on the back of The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham says that it is the story of Barrett, who sees a light which causes him to turn to religion, and of his brother Tyler, who uses drugs to try to enhance his creativity while he writes a song for his dying fiance.  While that it is accurate, it is such an oversimplification of The Snow Queen that it almost does the book a disservice. 

Barrett does in fact see a light, and attach significance to it.  He feels like the light is trying to tell him something, and he hopes that it is saying what he wants to hear.  Barrett lives with his brother, Tyler, and Tyler's fiance, Beth, in New York City in the early twenty-first century.  Beth owns a clothing/resale/hipster store in Brooklyn with her friend, Liz.  Barrett also works at the store.  Tyler is a bartender who is trying to break through as a music artist. The Snow Queen is the story of these four characters and their relationships, told primarily from the perspectives of Tyler and Barrett.  Beth is seriously ill, but the story somehow avoids being sentimental about her condition. Through the course of the novel, Tyler and Barrett accidentally find their best selves, while looking for something else.

There is a lot about The Snow Queen that reminded me of Cunningham's earlier novel, The Hours.  Both have New York as a setting, and feature a gay man and the women who love him.  In both stories the gay men cannot seem to part with their mother's upholstered furniture, and a character is drawn to high windows, from which he may or may not jump.  I listened to The Snow Queen on audiobook, and at the end of the story there was an interview with Michael Cunningham, in which the interviewer suggested that all of the characters from Cunningham's books seem like they could be friends with each other.  I found that observation to be dead on, and could easily see the characters from The Snow Queen popping over to visit with the characters from The Hours.

In a way, The Snow Queen is also a twenty-first century version of the musical, "Rent".  If the characters from "Rent" aged gracefully, they could have become Barrett, Tyler, and their friends.  Rent was also set in New York, and was the story of two boys in their early 20s and their friends trying to find their place.  Like Tyler, Roger from "Rent" believed that if he could just write one great song, everything would change.  Both Tyler and Roger also turn to drugs, and the woman that each loves faces death.  The stories also include meaningful gay relationships, and in both, New Year's Eve is a turning point.

The writing in The Snow Queen was incredible. I think that if I was reading the book in paper form rather than listening to it, I would have underlined tons of passages.  One thing that I really appreciated about this book is that it is the first that I can recall that was focused on the first decade of the twenty first century and set in New York, which did not mention 9/11.  It seems like 9/11 references have become compulsory and it was nice that while this story included lots of George W. bashing, Cunningham was able to resist the need to address the day itself.

The audiobook was narrated by Claire Danes, which I couldn't understand at first.  I couldn't figure out whose voice she was supposed to be.  I found myself wishing for Jeff Woodman or Wil Wheaton, as they seemed like obvious voices for hipsters like Tyler and Barrett.  I knew that they didn't choose Danes just because she was the most famous voice they could find, but then why?  I liked Danes best when she was talking for Liz, but Liz accounted for less than 10% of the speaking in the story, so they couldn't have chosen Danes for that reason.  Twice, characters referenced God as being a woman.  Could Danes have been intended to be the voice of God, or of Barrett's light, or of the Snow Queen?  By the end I knew that Danes was the right person for this role.  If Woodman or Wheaton had been reading, I wouldn't have ever been able to tell if Barrett or Tyler was speaking, since they said so much in a similar way.  Danes was simply the voice of the story.

I listened to this book at the request of Esther Bochner of Macmillan Audio.  I received a free copy of the audiobook, but other than that, no promises were made and no payments were received. 

This is another book down for the Audiobook Challenge.

Next Up on CD:  The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

Still Reading:  The Titans by John Jakes

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