Set in Brooklyn in 2004, it focuses on two brothers – two intensely close underachievers – searching for something in mid-life. One is 38-year-old Barrett Meeks, aimless, lovelorn and gay, who turns to religion for meaning; his older brother, Tyler, is a 43-year-old musician and bartender whose fiancée Beth has terminal cancer and who seeks solace in drugs.
Russo writes: “Still smarting after being dumped by the latest in a long string of seemingly promising boyfriends, Barrett is preoccupied by a celestial visitation. He has seen a strange blue light in the sky above Central Park [on a snowy day] that seems to be trying to communicate with him: ‘He felt the light’s attention, a tingle that ran through him, a minute electrical buzz; a mild and pleasing voltage that permeated him, warmed him, seemed perhaps ever so slightly to illuminate him.’ Barrett doesn’t know what to make of this, since he’s “adamantly secular, as only an ex-Catholic can be.” But thinking that maybe he’s being given a glimpse of something bigger — something that might, at the very least, explain his own slump, or Beth’s fate — he determines to figure out whether the light really existed in some verifiable way and, if so, what it signifies.
“The book’s title is lifted straight from Hans Christian Andersen, and Cunningham also plunders the fairy tale for a sharp little snow crystal that blows into Barrett’s brother’s eye that morning, blearing his vision. We understand that Tyler needs to learn to see clearly, especially because this scene features a far more insidious white powder [cocaine].”
As Charles McNulty observes in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: “A yearning for the transcendent runs throughout Cunningham's fiction. His characters always seem to be seeking a portal in the everyday for a glimpse at the eternal. Think of Clarissa, from Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel, The Hours, running errands through Greenwich Village in the same meditative manner of her strolling London predecessor from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, keenly alert to the "crush and heave" of the "endless life" encompassing her.
A better comparison might be with New York art dealer Peter Harris from Cunningham's 2010 novel, By Nightfall, which centers on a character who, like his author, is conscious of ‘the unending effort to find a balance between sentiment and irony, between beauty and rigor,’ in the quest to ‘open a crack in the substance of the world through which mortal truth might shine.’
Reviewing the novel in the Toronto Star, Robert Collison writes: “At a Meeks’s New Year’s, someone quotes a line from a Jane Bowles’ novel: “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years.” Funny? Yes, but in the context of this book larded with irony. In this novel, everyone is going to pieces — all the time — and no one seems to have the faintest clue about how to get their act together.
“So does The Light signify divine intervention in the Meeks’s sad, small, troubled lives? Maybe. Beth’s cancer miraculously vanishes. But hold the hosannas, because four months later, it rebounds; Beth dies and Tyler and Barrett’s world is seemingly as bleak as ever. But maybe not?
“The Snow Queen is, in truth, a tale about coming to terms with life. Your life. Did the vision buy Beth four more months? Who can say? But whatever happened over Central Park was clearly a transfiguration. At the novel’s denouement each bro’, separately, determines his path to personal salvation. That would seem to be a straightforward task. But if this novel is any indication, it’s not. The Snow Queen is no talisman.
“Cunningham’s prose is preternaturally precise and surgical in its dissection of emotional truth and nowhere is that more in evidence than in Barrett’s searing personal revelation. “I’m giving up the need to be important. Trying to matter.. . . There’s a difference between not pursing worldly ambitions and no longer feeling like a failure for not pursuing them. I’ve been wondering if that’s what the light meant. Like, you’re watched. You’re accounted for. You don’t have to be important. . . ”
- Read an excerpt from Snow Queen.
- Watch Claire Danes read from the novel.
- Listen to Michael discuss the novel with Diane Rehm.
- Visit Michael’s official website.
Michael Cunningham’s Top Ten List
1. King Lear by William Shakespeare (1605).
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857).
3. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855–91).
4. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927).
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925).
6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
7. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916).
8. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930).
9. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898).
10. The stories of Flannery O’Connor (for their unerring narrative focus) (1925–64).