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 27, 2015
The Ice Queen