Being a spinster librarian was my career goal as a girl, so the
(nameless) narrator of Alice Hoffman's THE ICE QUEEN immediately
caught my sympathy and attention. Living with books rather than
people seemed safe to me then, as it does to her --- a way to run
from the more dangerous territory of love.
What Hoffman's protagonist (having an anonymous heroine is really a
pain for reviewers!) is running from --- and toward --- is death.
In the first few pages of the novel, she wishes her mother dead in
a fit of eight-year-old pique over not being included in a birthday
party. A few hours later, her mother is killed in a car accident on
an icy road. As she grows up, she imagines herself as a creature of
ice --- invulnerable, repelling any attempt at human contact ---
and her emotional life is limited to back-seat trysts with a local
policeman. ("Then one night Jack brought me flowers…. That
was the end; that was how he ruined everything. … As soon as
there was the possibility he might actually care for me, I stopped
seeing him.") Years pass, and when her grandmother is dying,
painfully, she again exercises her spooky power of life and death.
Finally, she moves to Florida to be near her brother, Ned, a
meteorologist at the sardonically named Orlon College, and there
she makes her third death wish --- to be struck by lightning. That,
too, comes true, but she survives.
She survives, but she has damage to her heart, her hair falls out,
there is a persistent clicking in her head, and she can no longer
see the color red. She becomes part of a research project at Orlon
and finds her way to a mysterious fellow survivor known as Lazarus
Jones (so named because he was clinically dead, then came back to
life), who can burn paper with his breath, and they begin an
obsessive love affair: ice woman meets fire man.
Hoffman has always played with the slippery line between reality
and fantasy in her fiction (most obviously in PRACTICAL MAGIC, but
to some degree in all 17 of her previous adult novels), and in THE
ICE QUEEN the tension between the two is quite explicit: "Magic
makes sense. Lightning does not, even to the experts. Lightning is
random, unpredictable. It can be as small as a bean or as large as
a house. Noisy or silent, ashy or clear. It can be any color ---
red or white, blue or smoky black --- and it seems to have a mind
of its own." The book is part fairy tale --- its morbidly inclined
heroine prefers the brothers Grimm (who are quite literally grim)
to Hans Christian Andersen, whose stories are "filled with
virtuous, respectable characters" --- and part scientific treatise
(there is lightning research galore). Hoffman seems to be
suggesting that while stories of the supernatural might seem the
opposite of rational attempts to explain wind and weather, life and
death, in a sense they are exploring the same territory.
There is plenty of ravishing language here; I particularly liked
the passages about the narrator's color-blindness: "Whatever had
once been red was now cloudy and pale. All I saw was ice; all I
felt was the cold of my own ruined self. …In my world, a
cherry was no different from a stone." THE ICE QUEEN is also very
smart and eloquent, in a rather Jungian way, about how age-old
tales of shape-shifting and loyalty-testing affect our very
experience of love. Lazarus has not yet let her see him naked in
the light, and she thinks "of all those fairy-tale husbands who
hadn't known their true loves in the dark. Fools who'd slept with
evil queens or murderous sisters while their real wives were
chained to tower walls…."
Lazarus's true identity is only one of several mysteries in THE ICE
QUEEN. Why did Ned check a volume of fairy tales out of the
library? Why is his wife, Nina, a cool, collected mathematician,
wandering around the neighborhood in her nightgown? What really
happened to their mother that winter night? These concerns are a
relief from the heavy emphasis on the narrator's somewhat
claustrophobic inner world, and they give the book a bit of
momentum and suspense, but to me they seem a bit contrived.
In fact, I'm sorry to say (I'm a great fan of Hoffman's earlier
work), the whole book seems contrived. The heroine is more an idea
than a person; so are Lazarus, Ned, and Nina. The symbolism is
often obvious (at one point, blood oranges rot at the center
because the lightning strike has blighted the trees), as are the
emotional insights: The big epiphanies involve the narrator's
realization that her mother's death is not her fault and that love
involves laying oneself open to pain and loss.
Hoffman is such a lush stylist that she manages to mask the
conventionality of these sentiments with a fantastical web of myth
and sensuous detail, but it doesn't quite work. Despite the
protagonist's isolation and emotional iciness at the start of the
book, her metamorphosis soon becomes predictable: You just know she
will ultimately be transformed and uplifted (and that she'll end up
with the policeman). This is really a feel-good book masquerading
as a dark and bitter story, Andersen dressed up as Grimm.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 22, 2011
The Ice Queen