The Snow Queenby Michael Cunningham
A darkly luminous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours
Michael Cunningham's luminous novel begins with a vision. It's November 2004. Barrett Meeks, having lost love yet again, is walking through Central Park when he is inspired to look up at the sky; there he sees a pale, translucent light that seems/i>/i>/b>/b>
A darkly luminous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours
Michael Cunningham's luminous novel begins with a vision. It's November 2004. Barrett Meeks, having lost love yet again, is walking through Central Park when he is inspired to look up at the sky; there he sees a pale, translucent light that seems to regard him in a distinctly godlike way. Barrett doesn't believe in visionsor in Godbut he can't deny what he's seen.
At the same time, in the not-quite-gentrified Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, Tyler, Barrett's older brother, a struggling musician, is tryingand failingto write a wedding song for Beth, his wife-to-be, who is seriously ill. Tyler is determined to write a song that will be not merely a sentimental ballad but an enduring expression of love.
Barrett, haunted by the light, turns unexpectedly to religion. Tyler grows increasingly convinced that only drugs can release his creative powers. Beth tries to face mortality with as much courage as she can summon.
Cunningham follows the Meeks brothers as each travels down a different path in his search for transcendence. In subtle, lucid prose, he demonstrates a profound empathy for his conflicted characters and a singular understanding of what lies at the core of the human soul.
The Snow Queen, beautiful and heartbreaking, comic and tragic, proves again that Cunningham is one of the great novelists of his generation.
Two brothers grapple with aging, loss, and spirituality in this haunting sixth novel from the author of The Hours and By Nightfall. Barrett Meeks, a middle-aged retail worker with boyfriend troubles, is walking through Central Park one evening when he notices a mysterious light in the sky—a light he can’t help but feel is “apprehending ... as he imagined a whale might apprehend a swimmer, with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity.” Uncertain what to make of his vision, Barrett returns to the Bushwick, Brooklyn, apartment he shares with his drug-addicted brother, Tyler, and Tyler’s wife, Beth, whose cancer has come to dominate the brothers’ attention. As ever, Cunningham has a way with run-on sentences, and the novel’s lengthy monologues run the gamut from mortality to post-2000 New York City. But at its heart, Cunningham’s story is about family, and how we reconcile our closest human relationships with our innermost thoughts, hopes, and fears. Tyler and Barrett have “a certain feral knowledge of each other” and enjoy “the quietude of growing up together.” They connect over Beth’s illness, and contemplate the unique pressures of dying before one’s time. “Did Persephone sometimes find the summer sun too hot, the flowers more gaudy than beautiful?” Beth wonders. “Did she ever, even briefly, think fondly of the dim silence of Hades?” Cunningham has not attempted to answer any of life’s great questions here, but his poignant and heartfelt novel raises them in spades. (May)
“Regardless of your theological position on signs and wonders, that voice, Cunningham's inimitable style, is the real miracle of The Snow Queen. Sentence by sentence . . . he moves across the surface of these pages like some suave, literary god. Behold how he swoops in and out of Tyler's point of view, breaks the fourth wall, drops ironical quips, mocks and comforts in the same phrase . . . He writes so wisely about the cruel taunting of remission and the way illness both deepens and frays romantic relationships, endowing the dying with a kind of security and purpose that healthy people crave. His portrayal of the once-blessed Meeks brothers, raised in expectation of fame and riches they'll never attain--not even close--is full of affecting pathos.” Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Michael Cunningham's resonant new novel . . . is arguably [his] most original and emotionally piercing book to date. It's a novel that does not rely heavily on literary allusions and echoes for its power--a story that showcases the author's strengths as a writer . . . while creating a potent portrait of two brothers and their urgent midlife yearning to find some sense of purpose and belonging . . . He artfully allows the reader direct access to [his characters'] hearts and minds by using his gift for empathy and his own brand of stream of consciousness . . . A the same time, Mr. Cunningham provides an impressionistic portrait of Brooklyn, circa 2004, and of the East Village, some four years later . . . These snapshots attest to his ability to give us an intimate sense of his characters' daily lives, while situating their hopes and dreams within the context of two moments in history already slipping by.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“[T]he pursuit of transcendence in all kinds of forms--music, drugs, a McQueen minidress, and those things less tangible but no less powerfully felt--drives Michael Cunningham's best novel in more than a decade, The Snow Queen.” Megan O'Grady, Vogue
“Michael Cunningham writes some of the most beautiful prose in contemporary American fiction, and his gorgeous way with words is on full display in his new novel, The Snow Queen . . . The author is tender with his characters even when they're obnoxious or dumb. And he's particularly tender with Tyler, a self-deluding drug addict who is also that quintessential Cunningham protagonist, the artist struggling with his muse. As in his Pulitzer prize-winner, The Hours, Cunningham writes with specificity and intimate knowledge about the desire ‘to make something … marvelous, something miraculous.' Failure is not a threat inevitably overcome; it happens. The wedding song Tyler composes for Beth is, he knows, ‘more sentimental than searing.' His wincing analysis of the song's weaknesses gives a much truer portrait of the artistic process than the gauzy romanticism we usually get. Art is Cunningham's deepest faith, the Big Subject he approaches with a passion and conviction . . . There aren't any final answers in Cunningham's hauntingly inconclusive novel, which fittingly enough, closes with a question.” Wendy Smith, The Daily Beast
“Cunningham weaves an ode to the immortal city of New York and its artistic souls and lost citizens. His books remind us that the mythologies we imagine about our lives stem from seemingly ordinary moments and seemingly ordinary people . . . With elegant prose that peeks into the most private thoughts of his characters, Cunningham challenges the reader to imagine a pervasive, indifferent god--if any god even exists.” Allie Ghaman, The Washington Post
“Like By Nightfall (2010), Cunningham's elegant and haunting new novel examines the complex dynamics among a couple and a brother. In this configuration, Barrett Meeks, a poetically minded man in his late thirties who has just been dumped by his most recent boyfriend via text message, shares a Brooklyn apartment with Tyler, his older musician-bartender brother, and Beth, Tyler's great love. Beth and Barrett work in Liz's vintage shop. She's 52; her current lover, Andrew, is 28. Beth is undergoing full-throttle treatment for cancer. Tyler is struggling to write the perfect love song for their wedding, and breaking his promise not to do drugs. Barrett, long afflicted by his flitting interest in everything, remains in an altered state after seeing a strangely animated "celestial light' over dark and snowy Central Park. As his characters try to reconcile exalted dreams and crushing reality, Cunningham orchestrates intensifying inner monologues addressing such ephemeral yet essential aspects of life as shifting perspectives, tides of desire and fear, ‘rampancy' versus ‘languidness,' and revelation and receptivity. Tender, funny, and sorrowful, Cunningham's beautiful novel is as radiant and shimmering as Barrett's mysterious light in the sky, gently illuminating the gossamer web of memories, feelings, and hopes that mysteriously connect us to each other as the planet spins its way round and round the sun.” Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“The same masterful language that earned Cunningham a Pulitzer for The Hours in 1998 elevates this story . . . to a gratifying examination of transcendence in ordinary life . . . Overall, The Snow Queen proves to be a fulfilling literary experience, especially for fans of Cunningham's previous work.” Christina Wolfgram, Los Angeles Magazine
“The omniscience that runs throughout the novel's narration allows readers to not only glimpse, but take deep and heart-wrenching looks into the lives of these very tangible characters . . . Truths that other characters are ignorant to, moments that other characters are blind to, become welcome knowledge for readers in Cunningham's twisted and often disparaging world. Cunningham weaves whispers of spirituality, questions of mortality, themes of family and lessons on life's finer, more subtle pleasures. A work infused with passion, hatred, beauty and disgust, I found myself hard pressed to put the book down.” Chicagoist
“Michael Cunningham is known for his lyric and evocative language, and his sixth novel, The Snow Queen, is no exception . . . An emotionally charged story, simply told, about four people who come to defy that term ‘middle age.'” Alex Gilvarry, New Orleans Public Radio
“Michael Cunningham is among America's most gifted writers: graceful, delicately hued, wise.” Earl Pike, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“The attention to the quotidian creates the best parts of the book. In the quiet moments between the chaos of illness and new relationships, Cunningham gives the characters time to slow down and think.” Lindsay VanAsdalan, The City Paper (Baltimore)
“The Snow Queen wears its contemporaneity lightly, because the novel really concerns itself with eternal themes: the quest for love, the unfairness and inevitability of death and the hope of a meaningful life . . . [A] thoughtful, intimate novel.” Martha T. Moore, USA Today
“The Snow Queen is inspired by classic fairytales, though Cunningham's sensibilities skew in a thoroughly modern (even post-modern) direction, resulting in a very beautiful hodgepodge . . . The lush writing is gorgeous throughout . . . At a technical level The Snow Queen is extraordinary.” Ed Power, The Irish Independent
“Some books I don't want to read on my iPad. I want to go to a bookstore, buy a hardcover and slowly savor every brand-new page, preferably in a hot bath with a serious box of chocolates at my side. One such book is The Snow Queen . . . The narrative is almost amorphous, constructed of seemingly random scenes, all of which are situations set on the brink of something -- a presidential election, New Year's Eve, any one of the characters' hopes about to be realized or shattered. And the sense they make together is one of almost understanding one's life, or just about grasping the meaning of the universe, or practically but not quite realizing why we care about our friends and lovers. Or why we don't. In the end there's no doubt a story has been told and it's one that can easily stay with its readers for the rest of their lives. But it would be a fool's errand to try to go back to connect all the dots. It's like our own lives, full of seemingly pointless moments that add up to something that matters, a vision realized, perhaps, even if we never quite get to the bottom of what it all means . . . by reading his work, he reminds us that we are not alone in our desires, despair and dreams, and in our quests to find meaning in our lives together.” Rob Phelps, Wicked Local
In early 1900s Fátima, Portugal, three shepherd children were transfixed by a vision of Mary, the Blessed Virgin, visible only to them. Mary revealed three secrets: the reality of hell, how to save souls from the fiery furnace, and the future deaths of prominent individuals. Similarly, this new book by Cunningham explores the interconnected lives of Barrett, Tyler, and Beth, three individuals awaiting deliverance from their own personal dystopia, a dilapidated Bushwick, Brooklyn, apartment. Walking alone through Central Park, Barrett sees a vision in the sky. As he ruminates over his religious experience, his brother Tyler continues caring for Beth, his cancer-stricken wife-to-be, while concealing his battle with drug addiction. Though these characters are all searching for redemption (whether it's through religion, rehab, or a cure), the secret of humanity is ultimately revealed to each through the others' lives. VERDICT In concise yet descriptive language, Cunningham weaves the secret of transcendence through the mundane occurrences of everyday life. Those who enjoyed his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours will be pleased to see similar themes emerging in his newest novel. [See Prepub Alert, 11/11/13.]—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
An apparition spotted in Central Park has a man marveling at the place of magic in our lives. Or is it all just a trick of the light? November 2004: Middle-aged Barrett, bright but aimless, has just been dumped and has hit the skids professionally. He's moved into a Brooklyn apartment with his songwriter brother, Tyler, who hides a cocaine addiction and fumes at Dubya-era politics while caring for his fiancee, Beth, in rapid decline from Stage 4 cancer. Amid all this, Barrett is struck by a vision of "pale aqua light" in the night sky that suggests something bigger and more transcendent. Fast-forward a year: Beth's in remission, Barrett is settled, and Tyler's career is looking up. This study of fickle fate from Cunningham (By Nightfall, 2010, etc.) has its share of virtues. Since his debut, A Home at the End of the World (1990), he's masterfully characterized ad hoc families, and he's superb at highlighting the ways that small gestures (a finger pressed to a lover's lips; a shift in the way two people sit together) reveal deeper emotional currents. Here, he deftly allows Barrett's vision its power of wonderment while keeping the story firmly realistic. (References to fairy tales, magic and miracles are sparingly but strategically deployed.) Still, none of this keeps the novel from being somewhat slight, particularly in comparison to his debut and The Hours (1998): Life changes, we're all a little open to spiritual suggestion, and why is this surprising? Barrett begins attending church, but Cunningham treats this more as a dash of characterization than an exploration of faith. A drama involving Tyler energizes the closing pages but feels distant from the book's central concerns. A stellar writer working on a small canvas; Cunningham has done greater work.
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Read an Excerpt
A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love. It was by no means his first romantic dropkick, but it was the first to have been conveyed by way of a five-line text, the fifth line of which was a crushingly corporate wish for good luck in the future, followed by three lowercase xxx’s.
During the past four days, Barrett had been doing his best to remain undiscouraged by what seemed, lately, to be a series of progressively terse and tepid breakups. In his twenties, love had usually ended in fits of weeping, in shouts loud enough to set off the neighbors’ dogs. On one occasion, he and his soon-to-be-ex had fought with their fists (Barrett can still hear the table tipping over, the sound the pepper mill made as it rolled lopsidedly across the floorboards). On another: a shouting match on Barrow Street, a bottle shattered (the words “falling in love” still suggest, to Barrett, green glass shards on a sidewalk under a streetlamp), and the voice of an old woman, neither shrill nor scolding, emanating from some low dark window, saying, simply, “Don’t you boys understand that people live here, people are trying to sleep,” like the voice of an exhausted mother.
As Barrett moved into his mid-, and then late, thirties, though, the partings increasingly tended to resemble business negotiations. They were not devoid of sorrow and accusation, but they had without question become less hysterical. They’d come to resemble deals and investments that had, unfortunately, gone wrong, despite early promises of solid returns.
This last parting, however, was his first to be conveyed by text, the farewell appearing, uninvited, unanticipated, on a screen no bigger than a bar of hotel soap. Hi Barrett I guess u know what this is about. Hey we gave it our best shot right?
Barrett did not, in fact, know what this was about. He got the message, of course—love, and whatever future love implied, had been canceled. But, I guess u know what this is about? That had been something like a dermatologist saying, offhandedly, after your annual checkup, I guess you know that that beauty mark on your cheek, that little chocolate-colored speck that has been referred to, more than once, as an aspect of your general loveliness (who was it who said Marie Antoinette’s penciled-on version had been in precisely that spot?), is actually skin cancer.
Barrett responded initially in kind, by text. An e-mail seemed elderly, a phone call desperate. So he tapped out, on tiny keys, Wow this is sudden how bout we talk a little, I’m where I always am. xxx.
By the end of the second day, Barrett had left two more texts, followed by two voice mails, and had spent most of the second night not leaving a third. By the end of day number three, he had not only received no reply of any kind, but also had begun to realize there would be no reply at all; that the sturdily built, earnest Canadian Ph.D. candidate (psychology, Columbia) with whom he’d shared five months of sex and food and private jokes, the man who’d said “I might actually love you” after Barrett recited Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria” while they were taking a bath together, the one who’d known the names of the trees when they spent that weekend in the Adirondacks, was simply moving on; that Barrett had been left standing on the platform, wondering how exactly he seemed to have missed his train.
I wish you happiness and luck in the future. xxx.
On the fourth night, Barrett was walking across Central Park, headed home after a dental exam, which struck him on one hand as depressingly commonplace but, on the other, as a demonstration of his fortitude. Go ahead, rid yourself of me in five uninformative and woundingly anonymous lines. (I’m sorry it just hasn’t worked out the way we’d hoped it would, but I know we both tried our best.) I’m not going to neglect my teeth for you. I’m going to be pleased, pleased and thankful, to know that I don’t need a root canal, after all.
Still, the idea that, without having been offered any time to prepare for it, he’d never witness the pure careless loveliness of this young man, who was so much like those lithe, innocent young athletes adoringly painted by Thomas Eakins; the idea that Barrett would never again watch the boy peel his briefs off before bed, never witness his lavish, innocent delight in small satisfactions (a Leonard Cohen mix tape Barrett made for him, called Why Don’t You Just Kill Yourself; a victory for the Rangers), seemed literally impossible, a violation of love-physics. As did the fact that Barrett would, apparently, never know what it was that had gone so wrong. There had been, during the last month or so, the occasional fight, the awkward lapse in conversation. But Barrett had assumed that the two of them were merely entering the next phase; that their disagreements (Do you think you could try not to be late some of the time? Why would you put me down like that in front of my friends?) were signposts of their growing intimacy. He hadn’t remotely imagined that one morning he’d check his text messages and find love to have been lost, with approximately the degree of remorse one would feel over the loss of a pair of sunglasses.
On the night of the apparition, Barrett, having been relieved of the threatened root canal, having promised to floss more faithfully, had crossed the Great Lawn and was nearing the floodlit, glacial mass of the Metropolitan Museum. He was crunching over ice-coated silver-gray snow, taking a shortcut to the number 6 train, dripped on by tree branches, glad at least to be going home to Tyler and Beth, glad to have someone waiting for him. He felt numb, as if his whole being had been injected with novocaine. He wondered if he was becoming, at the age of thirty-eight, less a figure of tragic ardency, love’s holy fool, and more a middle manager who wrote off one deal (yes, there’ve been some losses to the company portfolio, but nothing catastrophic) and went on to the next, with renewed if slightly more reasonable aspirations. He no longer felt inclined to stage a counterattack, to leave hourly voice mails or stand sentry outside his ex’s building, although, ten years ago, that’s exactly what he’d have done: Barrett Meeks, a soldier of love. Now he could only picture himself as aging and destitute. If he summoned up a show of anger and ardency it would merely be meant to disguise the fact that he was broke, he was broken, please, brother, have you got anything you can spare?
Barrett hung his head as he walked through the park, not from shame but weariness, as if his head had become too heavy to hold upright. He looked down at the modest blue-gray puddle of his own shadow, cast by the lampposts onto the snow. He watched his shadow glide over a pinecone, a vaguely runic scattering of pine needles, and the wrapper of an Oh Henry! bar (they still made Oh Henry! bars?) that rattled by, raggedly silver, windblown.
The miniature groundscape at his feet struck him, rather suddenly, as too wintery and prosaic to bear. He lifted his heavy head and looked up.
There it was. A pale aqua light, translucent, a swatch of veil, star-high, no, lower than the stars, but high, higher than a spaceship hovering above the treetops. It may or may not have been slowly unfurling, densest at its center, trailing off at its edges into lacy spurs and spirals.
Barrett thought that it must be a freakish southerly appearance of the aurora borealis, not exactly a common sight over Central Park, but as he stood—a pedestrian in coat and scarf, saddened and disappointed but still regular as regular, standing on a stretch of lamp-lit ice—as he looked up at the light, as he thought it was probably all over the news—as he wondered whether to stand where he was, privately surprised, or go running after someone else for corroboration—there were other people, the dark cutouts of them, right there, arrayed across the Great Lawn …
In his uncertainty, his immobility, standing stolid in Timberlands, it came to him. He believed—he knew—that as surely as he was looking up at the light, the light was looking back down at him.
No. Not looking. Apprehending. As he imagined a whale might apprehend a swimmer, with a grave and regal and utterly unfrightened curiosity.
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, so that he was brighter than he’d been, just a shade or two; phosphorescent, but pinkly so, humanly so, nothing of swamp gas about it, just a gathering of faint blood-light that rose to the surface of his skin.
And then, neither slowly nor quickly, the light dissipated. It waned into a scattering of pale blue sparks that seemed somehow animated, like the playful offspring of a placid and titanic parent. Then they, too, winked out, and the sky was as it had been, as it has always been.
He remained standing for a while, watching the sky as if it were a television screen that had suddenly gone blank and might, just as mysteriously, turn itself on again. The sky, however, continued to offer only its compromised darkness (the lights of New York City gray the nocturnal blackness), and the sparse pinpoints of stars powerful enough to be seen at all. Finally, he continued on his way home, to Beth and Tyler, to the modest comforts of the apartment in Bushwick.
What else, after all, was he supposed to do?
Copyright © 2014 by Mare Vaporum Corp
Meet the Author
Michael Cunningham is the author of six novels, including A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, The Hours (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize), Specimen Days, and By Nightfall, as well as Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown. He lives in New York.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- November 6, 1952
- Place of Birth:
- Cincinnati, Ohio
- B.A., Stanford University, 1975; M.F.A., University of Iowa, 1980
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham is his latest novel. Thank you to St. Martins for a copy of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review. Mr. Cunningham is a new author for me. Let’s see what I thought about this latest effort? Synopsis: Barrett one night sees a light as he walks through Central Park. He is getting over the latest breakup. Meanwhile back at the apartment his brother Tyler and his fiancée Beth. She is fighting cancer and trying to go on living her life. Tyler wants to write her the best song ever. He also has an addiction to coke. Will his struggle with drugs help or hinder his efforts? Will Barrett also find the love he is looking for? My Thoughts: This novel is very descriptive and brings the characters alive within the story. The author is great at setting the scene in such a way that keeps the reader’s interest. This led to great narration by Claire Danes in her reading and interpretation of this novel. The story also involved great emotion from the struggles of each character. The author did a great job of developing his characters and sharing their journey. The novel is set in New York City area and the story begins back in 2005 and goes through 2008. The vision is seen in the snow in Grand Central Park. The snow queen is not really mentioned within the story, but is more figurative. I was not a fan of some of the subject matter discussed in the story. I like my reads to be more escapist reads. The story is very descriptive and creates a vivid picture in your head. Readers who enjoy Jodi Picoult or other authors like her will truly enjoy this story.
No plot,full of uninteresting whiners and complainers.....ugh
I read this terrible book because it was on Ophra's list of recommended books. Did anyone read it? It had no story and no ending. The story could have been told in 20 pages if you could call it that. The rest of the book was psycho-intelectual clap trap mostly thoughts of some of the week chatacters druged reality. It went no where and ended no where. If you value your time, don't waste it on this one!
Such a wast of mony and time
Don't waste time on this book.
I dont know, cause when you got blocked off, both your recent message and the bi.t.ch message disapeared. ~ Angel
That wasmt me
Kiss your hand three times repost this on three other books and look under yoyr pilllow tonight