LIGHT ON SNOW
By Anita Shreve. Little, Brown. 305 pp. $24.95
I read and enjoy Anita Shreve's novels, which is noteworthy only because I'm male and Shreve's books are conspicuously lacking in submarines. Usually they are New England-set sagas involving smart women, cads and betrayal, but they also transcend formula, and Shreve moves comfortably through history in her fiction. My favorites among the small library she has given readers in the last decade or so include The Pilot's Wife and Fortune's Rocks, novels that share little more than a precisely rendered geography.
In her new novel, Light on Snow, she has moved inland from the New Hampshire seacoast to the tiny White Mountains hamlet of Shepherd. The tale begins with 12-year-old Nicky Dillon and her father snowshoeing a few weeks before Christmas in the forest that surrounds their home, only to hear a small cry that they presume is from a cat. It is followed by the sounds of a car door slamming and then an engine revving along a road in the distance. A moment later they discover that what they had thought was a cat is actually a newborn baby, left in a sleeping bag to die in the woods in the cold.
Their find is particularly wrenching because Nicky and her dad moved to New Hampshire from a tony Westchester suburb of New York City two years earlier, after suffering an incalculable loss: Nicky's mom and baby sister died together in a car accident. Dad gave up his job with a prestigious architectural firm in Manhattan, packed up the home and took Nicky to a secluded house in an obscure village where they knew absolutely no one. There he has built furniture, some of which he occasionally sells, while sleepwalking through the tasks of being a father. The guy is around, but he's not exactly present, vacillating between the roles of zombie and curmudgeon.
Nicky, however, is striving mightily to be a perfectly ordinary young girl -- albeit one who knits, hasn't quite yet figured out all the details of birth and is more patient with her dad's despair than a well-seasoned grief counselor. Nicky is nice to be around, but she's not wholly plausible.
Father and daughter rescue the baby, deliver the child to the nearby hospital and then settle in for what Nicky expects will be another incredibly pathetic Christmas in their clunky old house in the woods. End of story? Not quite.
A 19-year-old stranger appears at the secluded homestead as the first flakes of a blizzard begin falling, a young woman who claims to be interested in purchasing a table as a Christmas present. She faints, and it becomes clear that she is, as sentient readers will have deduced instantly, the infant's mom. The storm continues, and soon she will be snowbound in the Dillons' small house with Nicky and dad -- a situation that offers a pro like Shreve just enough dramatic possibilities to stretch out (with big print) for 300 pages. Will dad, who loathes the young mother for her role in the attempted infanticide, turn her in to the police as soon as the roads are clear? Will Nicky, who is desperate for a female role model in her life, see the older teen as someone to emulate or scorn?
Shreve has chosen to have an adult Nicky recount this tale -- a choice that remains unfathomable, given that Shreve offers no clue as to who Nicky has become as a grown-up or how this astonishing event changed her. Moreover, the older Nicky recounts that fateful December in the present tense, giving the novel a cinematic sensibility with even the smallest moments rendered with exquisite stylistic care: The result is a camera panning over a lot of knitting and beading.
But even a modest work like this -- and make no mistake, this is a small work for Shreve, a short novel between more ambitious efforts -- can offer delights in the hands of a writer this gifted. The images of Nicky's father alone with his grief or the moment when Nicky menstruates for the first time with no mother with whom to discuss it are authentic and poignant; the complex rush of emotions Nicky experiences around the infant's mom -- fear, fascination and (for a variety of reasons the novel makes clear) adoration -- is a well-drawn microcosm of adolescence. The overall result is a novel that probably won't be studied by Shreve scholars in fifty or a hundred years, but one that nevertheless offers moments that are diverting and pleasurable. *
Chris Bohjalian is the author of nine novels, including "Midwives." His new novel, "Before You Know Kindness," was just published.