Reviewing books is often a good way to feel like a puppy-kicking sonuvabitch. And sometimes, when you find yourself the lone grump before a buzz juggernaut, you can feel like a crazy, puppy-kicking sonuvabitch. That's about where I sit after finishing Eowyn Ivey's debut novel, The Snow Child (Reagan Arthur Books), a novel already popular in Europe, a novel the Christian Science Monitor and Oprah tell me to watch for in 2012, and a novel of which one enthusiastic blurber was moved to say: "If Willa Cather and Gabriel García Márquez had collaborated on a book, The Snow Child would be it."
Cue my furrowed brow.
What is this purported love child of unlikely literary parents? At first, it's a tale of hard times and snow. It is 1920 in Alaska, and homesteaders Jack and Mabel have left Pennsylvania to toil in a gulag of their own making. Struggling to build a working farm in the middle of the Alaskan winter, heartbroken over a stillborn child, the couple’s spirits are low, their food stores lower, and their prospects dim.
Before the situation improves (thanks to an enormous moose ex machina), Jack and Mabel take their troubles outside for a rare frolic. During a snowstorm, they build a little snow-girl who disappears into the night. Soon Faina, a winsome blonde child with a fox for a friend, emerges from the woods to bewitch them both. The central tension of the novel is Faina's existential status: Is she an actual child living off the land, a small ambulatory snow goon, or the product of lonely imaginations?
Interpolating a Russian fairy tale, Ivey keeps us guessing with a narrative that attempts to sustain the possibilities of both magical realism and real, unmagical realism. In a meta twist that forestalls a lot of beating around the bush, Jack and Mabel know the fairy tale (“Snegurochka”), and indeed possess an edition of Arthur Ransome's Russian folk stories. This device allows the Faina mystery to come right out into the open; Jack, Mabel, and the reader know that they are either in magical territory, crazytown, or somewhere in between.
But the is she or isn’t she real business can't endure to the last page of the novel; when the rubber meets the road, readers demand answers. I won't spoil things by revealing which direction Ivey ultimately takes Faina, but the more Faina matters to the story, the more Ivey patches the holes of one possibility with material from the other. If Faina's real, then she's just a little bit magical. And if she's magical, then magic is just a little bit real. If there were a voice-over for The Snow Child’s intensely cloying book trailer, that might be it. (NB: Stop trying to make book trailers happen.) Partisans of the book could argue that the particulars of Faina’s existence are not as important as the central themes of love and loss. But when Arthur Ransome is a character in your novel and Faina is always threatening to melt into puddles in a hot room, your mystery requires a satisfactory resolution.
Then there's Ivey's prose, which is inoffensive but sometimes inartful. Why, we wonder, is Mabel hell-bent on micromanaging the little snow sprite?
Mabel pleaded to him. “Why would she want to stay out there, alone and cold? Doesn't she know we would treat her kindly?” So that was it. Beneath her irritation and desire to control was love and hurt.
Love and hurt will get you every time. Also, the characters often speak as though they were narrating their own personal book trailers:
Dear, sweet Mabel ... We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That's where the adventure is. Not knowing where you'll end up or how you'll fare. It's all a mystery, and when we say any different we're just ling to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?
Ivey writes the landscape well, and there’s lots of wilderness and log-cabin stuff here for people who like to fantasize about trapping critters from the comfort of their homes. That said, Annie Proulx, who also writes about rugged terrain and love and hurt, does so in exquisite prose. And C.S. Lewis, with Till We Have Faces, set a pretty high bar for mythic retellings.
It's not fair to define The Snow Child by the books that it isn't. It's also not fair to blame The Snow Child for its advance marketing and publicity, which draw my fire more than the novel itself. I know that if publishers don't market aggressively and authors don't support one another with ludicrous blurbs, the publishing industry will collapse in on itself and the only thing we'll be reading are the comments under "Shit Things Say" videos. I know this, but I don't have to like it. And if Robert Goolrick, New York Times best-selling author, tells me that The Snow Child is the artistic inheritor of Willa Cather and Gabriel García Márquez, I shall protest. So I'm occupying this URL, on behalf of contrarian snobs everywhere, to report that The Snow Child is a totally unobjectionable novel with good pacing and a pretty set, but it is not a revelation of content or style or form.
Why do I feel like a puppy-kicker? This novel is an easy meditation on yearning, harsh climates, good marriages, and friendly neighbors. It’s got the bittersweet, womb-stirring quality that is catnip to many readers. I myself have tasted of the catnip; my teenage self was an Alice Hoffman superfan, and Ivey's novel has far more in common with that peddler of whimsy than it does with Cather or García Márquez. Which is good news for Ivey, since Hoffman, and her acolyte Jodi Picoult, have made a fortune writing magic-infused novels with lots of feelings, some moral complexity, and few big words. These are novels to which the young and old alike escape with pleasure. They are middlebrow, and they are legion, and they are best-sellers.
My complaint about The Snow Child is not that it’s uncerebral, but that it’s wan. A novel doesn’t have to be high art to be great; it just has to bring it. Be middlebrow, I say, but be bold. As a fairy tale, “Snegurochka” is already kind of wispy and subtle and sad. Its retelling needs either transcendent prose, great characters, or thrilling set pieces, and The Snow Child fails to bring it on any of these counts. (Even the sex is chaste and unspicy.) This little snowflake of a book melts away before your eyes.