The Snow Child: Somewhere Between Magical Territory and Crazytown

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 31 2012 11:27 AM

Somewhere Between Magical Territory and Crazytown

Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child has trouble finding its place in the literary world.

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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:

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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.

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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.

Lydia Kiesling is a staff writer at The Millions, where she writes the Modern Library Revue column among other things. She is a student at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago.

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