Hoffman's dark fairy tale fnds its way out of the woods

April 17, 2005|By Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith,Los Angeles Times

The Ice Queen: A Novel

By Alice Hoffman. Little, Brown. 214 pages. $23.95.

Throughout Alice Hoffman's long career, her prose has shimmered with echoes of myths and fables as her fiction has explored decidedly modern individuals in often gritty situations. It's a tricky balance. In lesser works such as Local Girls, the magical undertones feel forced, and even such solid efforts as The River King display Hoffman's tendency to overdo lovely descriptions of the natural world. But when the mix is right, as in the unsparing Blue Diary, she's one of contemporary American literature's most satisfying and thoughtful practitioners.

Hoffman leads with her weaknesses in her new novel, The Ice Queen, but her strengths ultimately battle them to a TKO. "Be careful what you wish for," intones the nameless narrator in the opening sentence. "[Wishes] burn your tongue the moment they're spoken and you can never take them back." Especially not when you're an 8-year-old Jersey girl, who is angry that your hard-pressed single mother is going out for a birthday dinner with friends and wishes never to see Mom again.

After the inevitable fatal car accident, the girl concludes, "I'd destroyed my mother with words, so words became my enemy. ... There were words I couldn't bring myself to say; words like ruin and love and lost made me sick to my stomach." Neverthe-less, readers will be seeing a lot of those words, particularly "ruin." They will also be hearing a lot about the narrator's contempt for the moralistic fables of Hans Christian Andersen; she prefers the Grimms' grim fairy tales and a story she told herself as a child about a girl so unhappy that she stood outside until "she was made of ice. ... Nothing could hurt her anymore."

Fairy-tale analogies and images of ice, bones and blood crowd the pages as the narrator becomes a librarian who specializes in information on violent death, has furtive sex and relocates to Florida, where she is promptly struck by lightning. It's much too schematic: Once again, she has unwisely made a deadly wish. Once again, she's punished for forgetting the power of words. When she learns that another survivor of a lightning strike, Lazarus Jones, was revived after 40 minutes without a heartbeat or pulse, she immediately seeks him out: "I wanted a man like that, one it was impossible to kill." Can anything but disaster ensue?

When the ice queen meets a man so hot to the touch that "anything raw became cooked as he swallowed," there's bound to be some melting. Hoffman manages to slather on the gothic particulars while gradually eliciting our affection for her protagonist and justifying all those fairy-tale references.

We come to see that the narrator isn't merely morose and self-absorbed, but that she's on a quest to discover the truth about her past, "no matter what it might bring." The truths she finds about her mother and Lazarus allow her to open up -- to be moved by the sufferings of others. She even grudgingly admits, "I suppose people needed stories like Andersen's sometimes. The should-be story, the could-be tale."

This uneven, risk-taking novel is still more Grimm than Andersen, but the little girl beset by malevolent fate grows into a very human godmother who has learned that love can bring comfort as well as catastrophe. Dauntlessly, Hoffman still is following her muse's breadcrumb trail into the heart's dark forest. She's entitled to stray into metaphorical thickets from time to time.

Wendy Smith is the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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