With The Hours and Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham developed a reputation as a writer fascinated with parallel stories that spanned the gamut from historical fiction to science fiction. But even as his novels jumped between genre and setting, he found resonance among the tales they told. His latest novel, The Snow Queen, is a slim offering, quite different in structure and tone from his famous works. Those differences prove to be disappointing: The book does not suffer from its predecessors’ oversized ambitions, but is so scant it barely qualifies as a narrative.
Taking place over a series of nights from 2004 to 2008, The Snow Queen follows two brothers, Barrett and Tyler, as they come to grips with a series of tragedies around them. Barrett, the more intellectual of the two, finds himself in a mid-life crisis, floating between dead-end relationships and forced to move into Tyler’s dingy apartment in Brooklyn. Tyler’s fiancée, Beth, has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and he has become her nurse, giving purpose to his aimless existence. As the years pass, the brothers’ understanding of each other, Beth, and other members of their close-knit group of friends warp and fray, pointing them in new directions.
If that summation seems a little aimless, it’s because there’s not much going on in the book. While Cunningham’s prose and depiction of mid-2000s life are elegant and discerning, he never really has a plot in mind, instead moving from scene to scene as if content to present a collection of connected vignettes. If anything of importance does occur, it’s mentioned in passing, having happened before or after the time periods the book focuses on. More than a novel, The Snow Queen is a slice of life about listless people.
There is one “supernatural” element to the novel: Barrett sees a strange light in the sky in the first few pages. But like a Chekhovian gun that doesn’t go off, the light doesn’t make another appearance, nor does it have any real effect on what little plot The Snow Queen has. For a scene or two, Barrett wonders if the light helped Beth in her illness, but Cunningham never follows that suggestion to any interesting conclusion—or any conclusion at all. Unfortunately, the same could be said about half a dozen other plot points in the book.
More than anything, The Snow Queen feels like a Cliffs Notes version of some longer story. If Cunningham had decided to expand the novel and include some time between the specific days he highlights, there might have been more of a narrative hook. As it stands, The Snow Queen is prettily written, and not much else.