The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

Cunningham seems to have put two ideas together here in this 2014 novel. One is to recreate the difficulty of creating art, in this case composing songs rather than writing novels. And the second is to write a novel about the love of two men, except, not sexual love but brotherly love—a kind of love that may have intrigued this gay writer, and a kind seldom explored in literature.

But since there is an abstract aspect to these two ideas, a quietness that does not immediately grab reader interest, he introduces a mysterious light that one brother sees in the sky as he crosses New York’s Central Park. What can it mean?

And so we have the story of Tyler and Barrett Meeks. The older Tyler is living with girl friend Beth, who is dying of cancer, but he invites Barrett, a gay man and a victim of many unfulfilled love affairs, to live with them. It is this act of brotherly love, the relationship that it reveals, that is the prime achievement of this novel. Less significant are Liz, Beth’s older friend who has joined her in running a kind of used clothing shop, and Andrew, Liz’ lover, whom Barrett yearns for.

Nothing dramatic will happen in this novel. Indeed, one moment of drama, concerning Beth, is deliberately avoided. The result is more a portrait of a small group of people, no longer young and unable to find their station in life and unable to accept their fate, and yet who still yearn for something—for, we can fathom, the unachievable. The mysterious light that Barrett has seen at the start of the novel is often referred to, but it is more suggestive than real. It is perhaps intended to symbolize the yearnings of these characters, for fulfillment, but it plays no role in this novel beyond that of a maguffin.

I have been a fan of Cunningham in the past, in part because he has explored new literary grounds. But he does not do so here, despite his ability to write interesting scenes and interesting conversations, and to capture the yearnings of characters who are no longer young and yet are surrounded by the culture of youth in their Brooklyn neighborhood. Bottom line for me, this novel has been a disappointment.

The disappointment begins with the mysterious light, of which nothing is made except inconsequential musings, and it ends with a poetic musing that conveys a transient mood, but no conclusion to our story. In between is an ex-Catholic’s musings about a mysterious (not divine) presence in our characters’ lives, a presence that one brother avoids through drugs and another through sex. There is even a surprise, with the revelation of an affair between two of the characters, which is perhaps intended to reveal the desperation within each partner, but which seems to have no consequences—despite its inclusion in the poetic ending.           

The critics have liked this novel, but I have not. I cannot relate to characters who have lost their way, fail to find an answer in sex or drugs, or even a moment of religion, and revert at the end to a dream world apparently out of reach. Compassion is heartfelt, but not enough by itself. (August, 2016)

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