Review: ‘The Snow Queen’ by Michael Cunningham

The Snow Queen. Michael Cunningham. Illustrated by Yuko Shimizo. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 135 pages. $23.
The Snow Queen. Michael Cunningham. Illustrated by Yuko Shimizo. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 135 pages. $23.

A brilliant storyteller, Michael Cunningham draws on memory and imagination to make something new of the known world and the territory beyond. In works ranging from his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, to his most recent book, The Snow Queen, he draws from life — but with a difference. Characters’ lives unfold in the physical world, but in Cunningham’s fiction they live next door to the unseen world, which is filled with mysteries and illusions. In prose that ranges from witty and wicked to incandescent, the author has always dealt in magic.

Remixing myths and fairy tales in this new collection — beautifully illustrated by Yuko Shimizo — Cunningham stands magic on its head. Familiar characters we thought we’d outgrown spring to life in a new context, barhopping, trolling and philandering in the 21st century. Where the gorgeous stars of our old favorites were brought low by jealous sisters or vengeful demons, these characters are their own worst enemies.

“If certain manifestations of perfection can be disgraced, or disfigured, or sent to walk the earth in iron shoes,” Cunningham writes in his introduction, “the rest of us will find ourselves living in a less arduous world. . . .”

Summing up the swan prince’s problems, the narrator rolls out examples in the title story. “There’s the three-hundred-year-old woman who wasn’t specific enough when she spoke to the magic fish, and found herself crying, ‘No, wait, I meant alive and young forever,’ into a suddenly empty sea. There’s the crownletted frog who can’t seem to truly love any of the women willing to kiss him, and break the spell. . . .”

Crazy Old Lady brings us the once sexy, lonely old broad lurching into her 70s. Still on the lookout for cute guys, she builds a gingerbread house, convinced that it will bring in potential lovers. Boy, is she in for a surprise.

Although he suggests that even the best of us love to see the mighty brought low, Cunningham never condescends to his characters. Instead, he inhabits them. There’s the weirdly lovable Little Man who wants more than anything to have a child and weaves straw into gold in hopes of inheriting one; the Whites, a “modest but happy family,” who have the sort of good luck that brings them the gift of — wait for it — A Monkey’s Paw.

Earlier versions of this tale warn readers: Be careful what you wish for. Those of us who want our beloved dead returned come to this new story forewarned by generations of retellings. We think we know what to do. Specify that your deceased loved one shows up at the door in mint condition, that is, “as new,” and even then, think twice before you let him in. The ground rules specify no exchanges, no returns. Remember that your predecessors hung on to that third wish, in case.

In this compellingly human retelling, the Whites let their mangled son come in and settle down, never mind what the accident did to him. They coddle him even though their patience wears thin. “His infrequent baths no longer produce assurances that there’s something nice about a man’s natural spell. His stories are more often attended to, by Mrs. White, with an undisguised glaze of boredom. . . .”

Because Cunningham’s version is more than a fairy tale, humanity trumps wish fulfillment. “Mr. and Mrs. White remind themselves: This is still their son. They stand by him, as they must. They have that, at least, by way of virtue. They willed him into being, not once, but twice.” The son is what he is, which isn’t much, but like his parents, he can’t stop brooding over that leftover wish in the cupboard.

Yet The Snow Queen is less about poking fun at the hopes and dreams of fairy-tale royalty and grotesque villains than it is about reconciliation. The half-swan, part-human protagonist ends up a barhopping outcast, but at the end of the day, the deformed prince finds his own sort of comfort, curled up under his unwieldy wing. The lonely, cantankerous Little Man who spun all that straw into gold in exchange for the captive girl’s firstborn goes home empty-handed, but he has a nice house. Rage split him in two back there in the castle, so he has plenty of company now.

Transformed into a college jock with six-pack abs and a disability, the one-legged tin soldier finally hooks up with his porcelain ballerina, a coed. The marriage isn’t made in heaven, but they keep it going, as she unfolds the story of the one-legged soldier for their son. They coast into old age together, comfortable at last.

Kit Reed’s most recent novel is ‘Where.’