Misery loves company, the saying goes. And if that’s the case, probably the best advice for anyone looking to take on Stewart O’Nan’s novel, Snow Angels, is to read it when you’re miserable.
Because Snow Angels, at its root, is the story of misery in its many forms.
The tale of two couples – both dealing with the aftermaths of separation – it starts with a gun shot, and things just get worse from there, as readers are brought back to the events leading up to the murder, to see how the heartbroken protagonists could have dissolved so far. And while the opening sequence – that gun shot heard by the local high school band on a snowy afternoon – gives the impression early on that Snow Angels is something of a whodunit, the focus quickly turns to the more emotional ‘whys’ instead. Specifically, why was this murder committed in the first place? In both cases, though, Snow Angels falls short: you never truly question who committed the murder, but you never fully understand why, either.
Originally published in 1994, and reprinted now to coincide with an upcoming film adaptation, the novel rotates between two perspectives – that of Arthur Parkinson, a teenager at the time of the above-mentioned gunshot, watching his parents’ marriage fall apart – and that of his one-time babysitter Annie Marchand and the people in her life. Annie – the victim of the novel’s opening crime – is dealing with the aftermath of her own separation from ex-husband Glenn Marchand, and from a series of bad life choices along the way. The two narrative arches of Arthur and Annie connect at times throughout the novel, sometimes at points that are pivotal to the story’s progression, and sometimes in more superficial ways.
It doesn’t matter who’s point of view you’re seeing the world of Snow Angels from, though, because one is only slightly more miserable than the next, the pure white snow of the story’s setting a distinct contrast with the inner worlds of the characters who live within it. A product of mistrust and wrong turns, desperation and damnation, that wretchedness pervades through every part of the novel. Any hope of happiness is quickly swept away as things take turn after turn for the worse.
And while many excellent novels rely on human misery as a plot propellant – Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, for instance, follows a similar rhythm with a more powerful effect – the main problem with Snow Angels is that the misery is never countered with any moments of contentment, which in life have a natural tendency to creep up in even the most miserable of lives. Here, any joy is false joy, quickly eradicated – or, in Arthur’s case, destroyed with time – and soon any sympathy you might feel for the characters is wiped out, as they wallow in their own displeasure, and continue to make one poor decision after another. With no hope for anything to pull them out of this sad existence, the novel follows a cheerless trajectory, spiraling further and further downwards.
It’s a world where people do unforgivable things. In life, they might still be forgiven, but in Snow Angels no one is and no one will be pardoned for their sins, except on the odd occasion with a proper penance that far outweighs the offense at hand. Glimpses of Arthur’s future prove that nothing gets better, even then.
But if that was the only problem, perhaps it would be an acceptable one. Strong emotions – even negative emotions – can fuel strong writing, and the writing itself in Snow Angels seems at the start to be up to the task. The author, though, soon falls short. Through lines are introduced that never seem to have a purpose – one, for instance, dealing with Glenn’s birth father, that goes nowhere and misses by a distance its metaphorical intent. Characters’ motivations aren’t always clearly outlined, either, so that purpose becomes muddy and the “why” that’s introduced with the initial gunshot, the reason for that murder itself, is never truly clear.
Where O’Nan’s strengths do come in is at the start and finish. He opens, quite literally, with a bang, and while the story might get muddied and the characters miserable through the middle, the end offers a succinct view of the point he’s tried to make: that misery fuels misery and unhappiness is a product of the unhappiness before it. And while that may not offer any bit of joy, it does provide closure to the woeful tale that’s come before.
Still, though, those last paragraphs do little to plant the seed of satisfaction for readers who spent an entire novel searching for some kind of hope where none exists.