- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

LIGHT ON SNOW

By Anita Shreve

Little, Brown & Company, $24.95, 305 pages

REVIEWED BY KELLY JONES TORRANCE

What one wants this time of year is a quick read — something to be devoured in the evening after a day of holiday shopping, preferably in front of a roaring fire with a glass of merlot. It should be something that makes us reflect, at least a little, on things that really matter — love and family, not conspicuous consumption.

Anita Shreve’s latest novel, “Light on Snow,” may just fit the bill. Ms. Shreve shot to fame five years ago when Oprah chose “The Pilot’s Wife” as a book club pick. She has sold over seven million novels in the U.S. alone and is now at work on her 12th work of fiction.

Ms. Shreve’s stories usually involve tragedy of some sort — a husband’s death in a plane crash, a 19th-century girl impregnated by an adulterer, a photographer investigating a century-old double murder. “Light on Snow” is no exception. On a late afternoon walk in a snowy New Hampshire wood, Robert Dillon and his 12-year-old daughter Nicky hear the cries of a barely-breathing newborn baby.

The sun already set, the two race in snowshoes first to locate, and then to save, the abandoned child. The baby, of course, is put in the custody of social services. But that doesn’t stop Nicky, the novel’s narrator, from dreaming of a life different from the one she has now, one with a baby at its center. “What makes a family?” she wonders. “Yes, we are father and daughter, but because we were once members of a family that was torn apart, we think of ourselves now as half a family or a shadow family.”

The discovery brings back a flood of memories for both. Two years previous, Nicky’s mother and one-year-old sister, Clara, died in a car crash. Having lived prosperously in Westchester before the accident, Rob loaded up their belongings in a trailer and, Nicky in tow, headed north. They ended up in Shepherd, New Hampshire, strictly by chance.

Her father was once a successful, attractive New York City architect. But as Nicky recounts of the day after the accident, “His face, which had been ordinary enough the day before, seemed to have been recarved by an inept sculptor, the features rearranged and misaligned.” Now Rob goes days without showering or shaving and spends his time, television- and newspaper-less, building simple furniture.

Nicky is too embarrassed to invite friends to the sleepovers she constantly had in New York. Into this bleak existence comes first the baby, and then the baby’s mother. Nineteen-year-old Charlotte inexplicably shows up on the Dillons’ doorstep, and is promptly snowed in. Nicky, desperate for female companionship, can’t believe her luck: “She lies with her eyes closed, and I examine her, this prize.”

No matter that the mystery of how the baby came to be abandoned is still unsolved — Charlotte will French braid Nicky’s hair. “No one has touched me this way since my mother died,” she says, simply. Charlotte, she imagines, could replace both females she lost — young enough to be a sister, old enough to teach her the things her mother cannot.

There is not much plot to speak of. The entire story takes place over a week. Nicky and her father find the baby, a few days later Charlotte arrives, and a few days after that, on Christmas Eve, the story ends. The book is not very long — 300 pages — but the events, few though they are, are compelling. The questions of what led to the baby’s abandonment, and how the plucky, smart, but still childish narrator will come to terms with such human evil, make the book difficult to put down.

Part of the novel’s charm is its narrator — Nicky is one of those preternaturally gifted youngsters, pushed to grow up in a hurry after losing her mother and sister, and forced to look after her father, who has all but given up on life. But she has all the hopes and desires of a girl exactly her age. “He flips it open and makes a notation with a short pencil,” she says of a detective. “I want one of those short pencils.”

Ms. Shreve is responsible for some awkward prose. At times, the book feels like it was put together a little too quickly. But she can also write beautifully, especially of the small, familiar moments in a household. Nicky, for example, actually enjoys power outages in their small cottage: “These episodes are cozy and warm, and I am always a little dismayed when the power — in the form of lights you’d forgotten had been left burning — comes back on with all the charm of a police spotlight.”

A small book like this, focusing on only a couple events, is clearly meant to be a character study. But here is where Ms. Shreve fails. She draws the outlines of what could be fascinating people — a hermit of a man who had and lost it all; a young girl trying to mother both herself and her father; a girl, barely a woman, who gave birth in a hotel room for reasons unclear.

But Ms. Shreve doesn’t fill in those outlines with depth and light. We never really know Charlotte, for example. How did she fall in love with a man who could leave his newborn baby out in the snow? Ms. Shreve doesn’t even offer us a glimpse of the answer, except to note that he was rather good looking.

Even Nicky herself is a bit too mysterious to us. The events of the book took place when she was 12, but as narrator she informs us she is now 30. We are often reminded of this, because many of Nicky’s reactions are simply implausible. “It seems to me then, sitting on the stairs, that my future hangs upon her answer, that everything I will ever know or think about people forever depends upon what she says,” Nicky says when she asks Charlotte who carries responsibility for the baby’s abandonment.

The sentence is a fine one, and filled with much truth — but it is not something a 12-year-old, even a gifted one, would utter with any understanding. More importantly, we are given no information on Nicky’s current life. How did the events of the book change her, as they surely must have? The book itself, after all, is about tragedy and healing and how those two things make us love and hate other human beings.

“Light on Snow” is an engrossing holiday tale. But Anita Shreve’s clear talents are not quite enough to hide the ultimately flat characters at the heart of the story.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a books columnist for the America Enterprise Online.

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