The Ice Queen
Alice Hoffman seems to have the ability to draw even reluctant readers into her novels. She has a penchant for the bizarre and the supernatural, as overtly displayed in the three generations of witches in Practical Magic (1996), a popular novel which was made into a successful feature film. The Ice Queen offers plenty of both the bizarre and the supernatural, but Hoffman presents them in such a way that they seem almost natural, so that the reader accepts most of the novel as a realistic psychological character study.
“Be careful what you wish for,” the novel opens. The first-person narrator, a New Jersey woman who is never named, has accepted this cliché and personalized it. She is thirty-eight years old, but she vividly remembersindeed is still obsessed withwhat happened when she was eight. Her mother was going out one evening to be with some friends to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. The young narrator resented her leaving and, in a moment of spite, blurted out that she wished her mother would just disappear because she never wanted to see her again. It was an icy night, and her mother died in a car wreck, due in part, officials said, to the balding old tires on the car.
When her grandmother came the next morning to tell the girl and Ned, her twelve-year-old brother, the news, the girl braided her hair for the first time by herself and then cut it off. Already filled with guilt, she was quick to punish herself, firmly believing that her mother’s death was her own fault. The children were taken in by their grandmother.
In addition to the death of her mother, the narrator most remembers having Ned read fairy tales to her. She always insisted on hearing the dark and haunting versions of tales by the Brothers Grimm, preferring those to the stories with happy endings by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen. What appealed to her most in the Grimm fairy tales were the inexplicable things that befell the characters and the lack of logic to their fates. Ned always considered himself to be logical and unemotional, but he kept reading her the scary stories.
The narrator thinks that Ned is wise to show little emotion, and she proceeds to emulate his stoicism in most areas of her life. She sees herself as a creature of ice. She does not engage with people around her, except while working at the one job she likes, at the reference desk at the public library. Perhaps she enjoys her capacity there to give factual answers to the patrons’ questions. Her special area of expertise is ways to die.
For the most part, aspects of her life are fearful and dreary. An exception is her occasional wild, but depersonalized, backseat sex with Jack Lyons, a local policeman with whom she discusses methods of dying. She does not want to get to know him better. The first time he brings her some flowers, indicating that he has feelings for her, she drops him without explanation.
After the death of their grandmother, Ned insists that his sister move to his home state of Florida, where he is a science professor at the fictional University of Orlon. His field is meteorology, and he specializes in lightning. Annoyed by Ned’s enthusiasm, she idly wishes to be struck by lightningand a ball of lightning rolls right in through the open window. For a while, the left side of her body is paralyzedhalf of her wish to be dead, she grumbles. Her inner self is gone, she thinks. Her heart feels frozen. She cannot see the color red; anything red looks pale to her. Her brother enrolls her in a study of lightning-strike victims.
At this point, the book provides a lot of information about the extremely varied effects of being struck by lightning. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. The reader is given facts and statistics, including the datum that people in Florida are killed by lightning more often than in any other state. This material serves as a welcome break from being in the depressed mind of the narrator. Her brush with death has not made her more...
(The entire section is 1,770 words.)