Booked Up

Brooklyn, Brooklyn Take Me In

Michael Cunningam’s The Snow Queen is a magical story about the search for meaning by three city people.

By - Jun 5th, 2014 01:04 pm
Michael Cunningam. Photo Credit © Richard Phibbs.

Michael Cunningam. Photo Credit © Richard Phibbs.

Prolific novelist Michael Cunningham’s new book, The Snow Queen is a perfect antidote to a sweltering summer day. Its cool and languid prose describes a group of aging young adults in the outskirts of Brooklyn during the presidency of George W. Bush. As the winters go by, we are treated to both inspiring and heartbreaking moments that swirl like snowflakes and melt in the light of dawn. Cunningham, the celebrated author of The Hours, has created another work of literary magic.

Using the imagery and atmosphere of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale of the same name, Cunningham weaves a tale of courage and disappointment against the backdrop of political turmoil in early 21st century America. On a cold winter’s night, brilliant-but-aimless Barrett Meeks sees a celestial light over Central Park that seems to communicate to him. This apparently supernatural event continues to haunt him in the years ahead.

Gay and never lucky in love, Barrett lives with his older brother, Tyler, a struggling singer-songwriter and Tyler’s fiancée, Beth. Beth is undergoing treatment for cancer and provides a dose of reality for the lackadaisical brothers. She walks the snow-covered city dressed in white, like the queen of the title.

Tyler also loves snow, the kind you snort, and his struggle with addiction becomes another facet of the family experience. He is attempting to write Beth a wedding song that will also save her life. The pressures of this endeavor makes it harder for him to quit cocaine.

Wandering though the main characters’ lives are various hip friends and lovers. Their cool and sophisticated exteriors will be familiar to any urban dweller. Our central trio, however, seek something more substantial and spiritual. And they really don’t want Bush to be reelected!

All of this may sound a tad depressing, but part of Cunningham’s brilliance comes from the hope with which he imbues each character. Life may have dashed their youthful dreams, but our trio starts to discover other pleasures of living that the youngest seldom relish. This progressive view of aging comes with a real affection for these characters.

Cunningham also captures the malaise and incredulity that many urbanites felt after President Bush’s reelection. The hanging chads, a series of wars that seemed interminable, and the aftermath of 9/11 all contribute to the angst that the protagonists feel for themselves, their country, and for those citizens who seem to have been ignored by the ruling classes. Living in the squalor and degradation of the Bushwick district of Brooklyn, Barrett, Tyler, and Beth have absorbed the sadness of the poor without allowing it to crush them.

The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen

Political conflicts aside, Cunningham concentrates on the spiritual longings that so many feel as they leave adolescence and confront the realities of their own mortality. Should they return to a church they don’t respect? Should they seek experiences beyond the everyday with the hope for a sign from the infinite? Or should they repress these intimations, hoping that normalcy will quash their desires?

As the plot progresses, the reader becomes more and more certain these people will survive and possibly thrive, despite the grim events around them. Secrets are revealed, alliances change, and relationships transform. No matter what the challenges, the bonds of brotherhood and the commitments of lovers trump everything. That message is comforting and warm, exactly what one might need on a cold winter’s night.

A final note: If it seems that I always like the books I write about, well, my goal is not to criticize the literary style of some author, but rather to recommend the best books being published. For each week’s column, I consider three or four books before deciding which one to write about. I want you to know enough about it so you can decide if it’s something you might enjoy. And, as always, I wish you good reading!

Upcoming Book Events:

Saturday, June 7 (7:00 PM): Reading by Jeffery Renard Allen, author of Rails under My Back and Song of the Shank at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Sunday, June 8 (11:00 AM): “Story Time with Jannis” will feature I Got the Rhythm by Connie Schofield-Morrison and a few more stories on the themes of music and dancing. Perfect for ages 18 months and up at Boswell Book Company.

Monday, June 9 (6:00 PM): Milwaukee Public Library Event in the Rare Books Room with Martha Bergland and Paul G. Hayes, authors of Studying Wisconsin: The Life of Increase Lapham, Early Chronicler of Plants, Rocks, Rivers, Mounds, and All Things Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Public Library is located at 814 W. Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Tuesday, June 10 (4:00 to 7:00 PM): “Dork Diaries Activity-Filled Book Signing” at the Greenfield Public Library with Rachel Renée Russell, author and illustrator of The Dork Diaries 7: Tales from a Not-So-Glam TV Star. Each attendee may have up to two books signed and personalized. There are no posed photographs for this event. The Greenfield Public Library is located at 5310 W. Layton Avenue in Greenfield. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, June 11 (6:30 PM): Book Club discusses The Dinner by Herman Koch at The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., Wauwatosa. (414) 774-2665

Wednesday, June 11 (7:00 PM): Book Release Reading by Martha Bergland and Paul G. Hayes, authors of Studying Wisconsin: The Life of Increase Lapham at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001 woodlandpattern@sbcglobal.netFree admission.

Wednesday, June 11 (7:00 PM): Signing by Ian Hamilton, author of the Ava Lee series, at Mystery One Bookstore, 209 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee. (414-347-4077)

Thursday, June 12 (7:00 PM): “Ticketed Father’s Day Celebration” with Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics at Boswell Book Company. Tickets for this event are available on the Brown Paper Tickets. Ticket cost is $18 (this includes all taxes and fees) and includes admission for two people and an autographed copy of The Boys in the Boat. There is no gift card option for this event. Co-sponsored by Wisconsin Public Radio and the Milwaukee Business Journal.

Friday, June 13 (7:00 PM): Elizabeth Berg presents Leah Hager Cohen, author of The Grief of Others and No Book but the World, at Boswell Book Company.                                                              

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!

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