THE ICE QUEEN
By Alice Hoffman
Little, Brown. 211 pp. $23.95
Alice Hoffman's new Gothic romance is supposed to be a modern fairy tale but, brother, the results are grim. The story heads off into the dark woods of magical realism with a basketful of guilt and despair, but it quickly falls down a well of contrivances.
Once upon a time, when the unnamed narrator was a bratty 8-year-old girl, she angrily wished her mother would disappear, and -- shazzaam -- the woman died that very night in a car accident on an icy road. The coincidence convinced the girl that she had destroyed her mother with words, so she fantasized about becoming an orphan who turned into ice, an "invisible, queen of the ice" whom nothing could hurt.
She grew into a quiet, icy adult. (Don't worry if you miss the frosty motif; it's repeated throughout with the subtlety of an ice pick.) She gets a job at the local library, endures "hurried and panicked and crazy" sex with the police captain in the parking lot, and becomes the town's "devotee of death," an expert on ways to die.
"And like any expert," she says, "I had my favorites: bee stings, poisoned punch, electric shock."
She collects dead flies on the windowsill. She has a pet mole. Parents of young children don't ask her for book recommendations because she always pushes the most gruesome fairy tales.
There's a promise here of Edward Gorey comedy, but it's asphyxiated by the narrator's relentless whining: "I didn't deserve kindness, or loyalty, or luck"; "I didn't deserve to be happy"; "I had lost the will to wash my face, to look in the mirror, to step outside, to breathe the air"; "Even my own cat disliked me"; "I was pathetic really"; "My life was empty and that was fine"; "I was a failure in each and every thing I undertook." On and on she goes with this self-absorbed monologue, like the recording of an egotist played backward. When she makes a wish that lightning would strike her, I hoped so, too.
And then, of course, it does, which is quite a coincidence because her brother happens to be a meteorologist studying neurological injuries suffered by lightning-strike victims. When she wakes up in the hospital, she's bald, colorblind and half-paralyzed, which would be really depressing even if you weren't already a devotee of death who collected flies on your windowsill.
What's more, her "heart felt frozen. . . . Ice in my veins. Ice behind my eyes as well." Her brother badgers her into joining a support group of lightning-strike survivors, where she hears rumors about a man named Lazarus Jones who had been dead for 45 minutes after lightning struck him.
"All at once," she says, "I was interested in something. . . . I wanted a man like that, one it was impossible to kill, who wouldn't flinch if you wished him dead, who'd already been there and back." She buys a red dress, drives to Lazarus's house and knocks on the door.
"I had never seen such a beautiful man in all my life," she says. "What no one had mentioned about Lazarus Jones was that he was beautiful."
But no one needed to mention that because he's the prefab hunk who often strides out of Hoffman's land of mythical creatures. In her "Blue Diary" (2001), Ethan Ford was so good-looking that neighbors were "bewitched," and in "The River King" (2000), Abe Grey was "the handsomest man" in town.
Even Lazarus's dark, nasty secret is a predictable clunker. (Think about it: If she's made of ice, what would he be made of?) "There was something hot in his gaze, as though he could burn you alive if he wanted to." He smells like sulfur and his breath can ignite paper, which are usually turnoffs, but she's drawn to him like a moth to a flame. When they kiss, she has to put ice cubes in her mouth. They can have sex only in a tub full of cold water. Ouch!
All this would be hot if the language weren't so warmed over, if there were a spark of wit or pathos or intrigue, but instead we endure lines like this: "I felt heartbroken and I hadn't even known I had a heart to break." The poetic style that enlivened some of Hoffman's early books has decayed into mushy imagery: "I found the other glove under the hedge. It was curled up like something broken, a leaf, a bird, a mole, a heart." Ah, curled up just like that. . . . And we hear the same themes and images again and again without very convincing exploration.
Most tiresome of all are the relentless allusions to that old butterfly in South America whose fluttering "changes the weather halfway across the world." How I began to yearn for that butterfly to end up on her windowsill. But Hoffman wants to make us see that life is like the old fairy tales -- governed, she claims, by chaos theory. This would be more convincing if either the refracting complexity of chaos theory or the archetypical mystery of fairy tales ever powered this novel. "I didn't believe in a rational, benevolent world," the narrator says, "that could be ordered to suit us, an existence presumed to fit snugly into an invented logic."
Sadly, Hoffman doesn't really share her narrator's disbelief in such artifice. The story that grows from this macabre opening fits all too snugly into an invented logic familiar to anyone who has seen an episode of "Smallville" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." (Although, to be fair, those shows have an element of campiness that can make them kind of fun.)
It's a sad coincidence that "The Ice Queen" is appearing now, in the month of Hans Christian Andersen's 200th birthday. To mark the bicentennial, Tiina Nunnally has published a new translation of his work (Viking, $27.95). In her introduction, Jackie Wullschlager notes that Andersen's quintessential hero was "alone, silent, unlovable, yet with an unswerving sense of his own unalterable self." Ironically, her description of Andersen himself bears an even more striking resemblance to Hoffman's narrator: "He also feared that the splinter of ice in his own heart made him unlovable, emotionally frozen." Perhaps that anxiety fueled Andersen's fascination with the absurd twists of punishment and reward, the mysterious paths of the unconscious that sometimes lead to misery and sometimes to happily ever after. Unfortunately, no such fire burns in "The Ice Queen."