The Ice Queen, by Alice Hoffman

Sparks fly as a cold heart is melted in a passionate adult fairy tale
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The Independent Culture

Encouraged to join a self-help group for recovering patients, she learns about Lazarus Jones, a fellow strike victim rumoured to have survived 40 minutes without a heartbeat. Irresistibly drawn to a man who has cheated death, the librarian drives to his home - a farmstead on an orange grove - and discovers, to her delight, a 25-year-old loner with eyes the colour of ashes. Sparks fly and passions ignite - but as she's the ice queen of the title, and he emanates extreme heat, their smooching has to take place in an ice-filled bath.

Over the course of 18 novels, Hoffman has, with her grown-up fairy tales, fed an appetite for the happily-ever-after. Her fiction describes a modern America redeemed by hocus-pocus, and populated by self-sufficient women who know their juniper from their ragwort.

Like Hoffman, the novel's narrator is a devotee of fairy tales, and lives in a world of life-and-death wishes. As a bratty eight-year-old, she angrily wishes that her mother will fail to return from a night out with her friends; later that evening, the car skids off a wintry highway. As in a fable, the little girl turns herself into ice, growing up into a frosty librarian incapable of forming adult attachments.

Herself a survivor of cancer, Hoffman has written a book largely about death and dying well. There is little narrative complexity or character development as we wait for the heroine's heart to thaw. Incantatory prose and mythical tropes - blood-red oranges and bad-luck blackbirds - remind us that nature and magic walk hand in hand. Two-thirds of the way through, the narrator finds out that her brother, an expert in meteorological disturbances, only has weeks to live.

Hoffman is a confusing writer. At times she casts an undeniable spell, at others - as during the ice-chomping sex scenes - an element of loopiness threatens to prevail. Fans of her earlier, grittier tales of fractured family life will be disappointed by a novel whose comforts are more palliative than real.