Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1735
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 sympathetic to others, not even with the members of the research group.
One young man in the group, Renny Mills is a student at the university where Ned teaches. Renny tries to befriend the narrator. He wants her to listen to him as he tells about his unrequited love for another student, a young woman who scarcely knows he exists. The narrator is not interested. Renny limps, and his hands have been rendered almost useless by the lightning bolt that hit him. He needs help in constructing a model building for his architecture class. Out of ennui, the narrator does eventually spend some time with Renny working on the project, but on the day that he most crucially needs her help, she is not available. It is revealed that he had to drop the class anyway and that he wanted the model as a present for his dream girlfriend. When the narrator was not there to help him finish it, he went to a hardware store, grabbed a hatchet, and tried to cut off his hand. One of the store workers managed to stop him; Renny was then sent to a hospital. He will go back to his family, which plans to sue the university on the grounds that the research project did not provide adequate psychological attention to the members of the group. The university drops the study.
The reason the narrator failed to meet Renny to finish his project was that she was by then spending all of her time with Lazarus Jones. Jonesor rather, his situationis virtually the only thing that has captured her attention since she was eight years old. “Lazarus” is a nickname Jones gained because after he was struck by lightning, he was pronounced dead. It was not until forty minutes after the strike, with his body already at the morgue, that he awakened and promptly left. He did not want medical attention and refused to be in the victim research group. Apparently he never leaves his house or speaks to the workers at his orange orchard. When the narrator hears about Jones, she becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to him during the time that he was “dead.” She drives to his home in the countryside and demands to talk with him.
Lazarus Jones is as literally overheated as the narrator is metaphorically frozen. When they kiss, she puts ice cubes into her mouth which boil from his fire, or at least quickly melt. They have sexual intercourse in a bathtub filled with extremely cold water. He insists that their trysts occur in the dark, with all the window shades drawn and the lights out. She never sees him without his clothes on. This manic affair seems to overwhelm the novel as the narrator becomes oblivious to other things happening around her.
Such bizarre and supernatural events could also be read as the reflection of the narrator’s mental breakdown in her obsessed state. Perhaps the doctors were correct in their diagnosis that the lightning strike left her with neurological damage. Strangely, however, she seems to be not much different from the way she always has been, except that now she has a specific focal point for her interest in death. She fears death, while Jones fears living. She keeps demanding, unsuccessfully, that he tell her what it was like to be dead. Because he will not tell her, she decides she must see his body. She remembers the old fairy tales about women who tricked their husbands and disobeyed their warnings, all of which ended disastrously, but she cannot let it go. She tricks him and views his body. Suddenly, the sexual spell is broken. He is just another man, and one who will soon leave.
Reviewers have commented on the novel as one in which Hoffman takes risks with her dark tale, her oddball characters, her endless descriptions, and her largely unsympathetic narrator. The last section of the novel is even more problematic for many. There are at least two legitimate reasons for the unfavorable response.
One problem is that the last third or fourth of the novel seems barely related to what preceded it. After the abrupt termination of the strange affair between the narrator and Jones, the topic of lightning is dropped. Ned suddenly develops cancer. The narrator has not seen much of him, even after she moved to Florida at his insistence. Now she becomes involved in his sickness and his mortality. She helps Ned’s wife, Nina, care for him. Ned changes from being a cynical scientist to being a romantic who says that before he dies, the one thing that he wants to see is the mariposa butterfly migration in California. Nina is pregnant, and she cannot take him, so the narrator does, with the help of innumerable medical assistants. On his stretcher, Ned sees the butterflies and then dies. The narrator lives with her sister-in-law for several months, helping her with the new baby, a girl whom Nina names Mariposa. Then the narrator goes back to New Jersey and works at the reference desk at a library.
Another problem is that the book’s ending fits the happy endings of the brighter fairy tales. It certainly is not the ending in the Grimm Brothers stories. The reader may be relieved but may also be dissatisfied by the lack of preparation for the change in the narrator, the reason for which remains unclear. The narrator figures out somehow (or at least convinces herself) that her mother, who never meant to arrive at the celebration with her friends, committed suicide. In the narrator’s mind, this makes all the difference in her own life; she did not kill her mother with her rashly uttered wish. At that point, the policeman Jack Lyons shows up again, still wanting to love her. He will accept her however she is, and let her paint every wall or ceiling in their home whatever shade of red she wants. The narrator no longer feels afraid. Why? The best that the novel can suggest is that perhaps it is the magic of fairy tales, the illogic of fatethat anything can happen, bad or good.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
Booklist 101, no. 14 (March 15, 2005): 1246.
Detroit Free Press, April 17, 2005, p. 4L.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 5 (March 1, 2005): 249.
Library Journal 130, no. 7 (April 15, 2005): 13.
Ms. 15, no. 1 (Spring, 2005): 90-91.
People 63, no. 18 (May 9, 2005): 51.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 12 (March 21, 2005): 37-38.
The Times Literary Supplement, November 18, 2005, p. 22.
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