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Originally published Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘The Snow Queen:’ Brothers in the purgatory of middle age

In Michael Cunningham’s new novel “The Snow Queen,” two brothers, Barrett and Tyler, grapple with the illness of Barrett’s wife, then wrestle with the void in their lives created when her cancer goes into remission.

Special to The Seattle Times


“The Snow Queen”

by Michael Cunningham

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $26

In a Michael Cunningham novel, time takes such an important role that Past, Present and Future almost become their own characters, as in a medieval play. His signature work, “The Hours,” dances between now and then with prize-worthy ease. His latest, “The Snow Queen,” flows sequentially, but — as in real life — thoughts and memories have their own chronology.

Another striking characteristic of Cunningham’s work: He is a Serious Writer, with a gift for language and the tendency to draw inspiration from his literary forbears. Just as “The Hours” was an homage to Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” the theme and title of his new novel tips its hat to a Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about the redemptive power of love.

“The Snow Queen” opens on a winter night when Barrett Meeks — “Gore-Tex-swaddled, homeward-bound, standing on the icy platter of Central Park” — looks up and sees Heaven (what the heck, let’s capitalize this, too) open its “celestial eye.” Is this a sign? If so, what’s it telling him?

He has no idea, but the magic moment lingers in his brain long after he returns to the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his older brother, Tyler, and Tyler’s bride-to-be, Beth.

Beth, “frail and ivory-colored as a comatose princess,” is going through chemo, and her chances do not look good. Tyler and Barrett have mobilized themselves around her care and survival. But their cause loses its fervor when she goes into remission and they can return to their normal lives.

This poses a problem for the two brothers, both hurtling toward middle age without much to return to. In contemporary parlance, they’re slackers; in a more pitiless era, they might have been called ne’er-do-wells. Lack of talent and/or cocaine have thwarted Tyler’s progress as a song composer. Barrett has the smarts to succeed but not the will.

Beth and her fate may be the plot’s catalyst, but the story revolves around the brothers and their relationship, its history captured in what Cunningham calls “time-snaps” -- the relentless images from the past that keep popping up and shape our notion of self. Their mother was killed in a freak accident. Perhaps that blink of that “celestial eye” explains why Barrett’s gaze is on the clouds and Tyler’s is on his next fix.

And yet: Should we be chagrined that Barrett, the gay brother and one his mother marked as special, is the mystic, while ex-jock Tyler is the materialist, stimulated by sex and drugs? Fairy tales operate on stock types, but this seems a little too easy for a writer as discerning as Cunningham.

Fairy tales use fantastic elements to teach a real-life lesson. Andersen’s version of “The Snow Queen” was an allegory of male adolescence, showing that the path to adulthood is through the power of love. The best part of this sweet but slight novel is how Cunningham gives this idea a contemporary spin.

Barrett and Tyler both love their “princess,” pushing the reach of love’s power beyond the romantic kind. The cacophony of contemporary life promises that there will be no Happily Ever After. And, for most of us, at least, divine intervention is elusive. Our comfort comes from knowing that we are all brothers, more or less, sharing the same struggles.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a book critic and writer who lives in Portland.

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