The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

Lightning can strike twice in fairy tales
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The Independent Culture

But Alice Hoffman embraces the old-fashioned without fear, and here gives us another outmoded notion: the classic love story that celebrates an impossible love. Her unnamed narrator has grown up believing that she was responsible for her mother's death when she was a little girl. Her father had left her, her mother and her brother to fend for themselves. As a result they were a close family, perhaps too close, because when her mother leaves to celebrate her 30th birthday with friends one cold January night, her little eight-year-old daughter, in a fit of spite at being left behind, wishes that she might never come back.

Which is exactly what happens - her mother crashes her car and dies. Her daughter grows up with a love of Grimms' fairy tales and a distrust of Fate: "I preferred tales in which selfish girls who lost their way needed to hack through brambles in order to reach home... I didn't believe that people got what they deserved." Her scientific brother, who advances the Chaos theory ("I knew the power of a single wish, after all"), simply reinforces her suspicion that the universe is a malevolent and unjust one.

As an adult then, she hides away from life experience and buries herself in stories instead, becoming a librarian. But after she is struck by lightning, rendered permanently cold inside and unable to see the colour red, she moves to be near her brother and meets another lightning survivor, "Lazarus" Jones. Jones got his nickname because twice he was struck dead by lightning and twice he survived. The lightning has left a stunning imprint on his body, which he tries to hide from the narrator. But once they have begun their passionate affair, she discovers it. They are, of course, opposites drawn to each other. She is full of ice; he is full of fire, quite literally. She has to fill her mouth full of ice just to kiss him.

It is through this impossible love that the "ice queen" learns to forgive herself for wishing her mother dead and learns to cope with loss. She also learns the truth about what happened to her mother, the truth at the heart of the book. Hoffman is giving us a post-Freudian message (learn to love yourself) mapped on to a pre-Freudian medium; like the Gothic romance, the fairy tale relies on symbolism and the body to explain not only sexual impulses, but also the workings of the mind and the soul.

And she does it beautifully, composing a lyrical tale that does not waste a single word, a shamelessly heart-breaking story that will leave barely a dry eye in the house.