Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers made me glad paper books still exist. It’s a lovely little object: the cover reflects protagonist Isabel, a librarian who works in the repairs department and collects vintage clothes and ephemera. The pages have deckled edges, wide margins, and an elegant type face. (Though the print is so punitively small that I wondered whether readers over 30 aren’t welcome, and whether my eye doctor will tell me on my next visit that yes, this time I am ready for progressive lenses). E-books could be beautifully designed too, but not until publishers stop hating on them.
Presented on these beautiful pages is the kind of story that invites descriptions like “lovely little book,” a quiet book, or, as one review pull-quote says, “lyrical and luminous” (which sounds like code for “nice writing but nothing happens”). It’s at most 30,000 words, which makes the label “a novel” a stretch. You could easily read this in a couple of hours, but I think it would be a mistake. Like Mrs. Dalloway, Glaciers takes place over a single day, the events of which are intercut with Isabel’s memories of her past. It’s a collage of scenes, fitting for the story of someone who collects old photographs and postcards. I found it most satisfying read slowly, a little at a time, savoring the images. Isabel will linger with me for a long time.
As someone who reads a lot of romance, I was especially fascinated by how this book took what could be the makings of a contemporary romance novel and developed them in a “literary” way. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying this is not a romance in the genre sense, since the cover copy mentions “loss” more than once. Isabel, the hipsterish vintage-wearing librarian, has a crush on her co-worker Spoke (real name Thomas), a wounded former soldier. In a romance, her quirky warmth would ease his pain and they’d get their HEA. That doesn’t happen here. But though Glaciers is a rather melancholy meditation on loss, I found it hopeful, not depressing.
One of the differences from genre romance is how indirect the narrative is. There’s a lot of concrete description, and through that you can infer the character’s feelings, but they aren’t often spelled out. For instance, Isabel arrives at work early so she can see Spoke:
When she turns back to the table, he picks up a spoon and stirs his coffee. She cups her tea in both hands, fingers wrapping around the cup and meeting on the other side. He taps the spoon against the glass rim. He closes his eyes and inhales the vapor.
They read the paper side by side “and carefully avoid touching each other.” Isabel is so aware of both Spoke’s body and her own because she’s attracted to him, but only later does she reflect that this “sharpening of the senses” is “a strange product of infatuation.” And Spoke, unlike a romance hero, isn’t described in a way that emphasizes his archetypal masculinity or sexual desirability. This scene works by implication, and the details aren’t those a romance author would dwell on. My pleasure in the kind of story Smith is telling, and the way she tells it, was enriched by reflecting on its difference from romance.
Isabel’s hobbies and work all involve preserving and remembering the past. She weaves stories for the people in her photographs, the senders and receivers of her postcards, the previous wearers of her vintage dresses. She does this partly in response to the losses of her own childhood, the divorce which split her family and made them leave Alaska behind: “The fissures in their family grew until the most important parts broke free and began to drift away.”
That image, of glaciers melting and breaking up, is repeated throughout the book, and it’s an image of both death and birth.
Like other great creatures before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death . . . was a spectacle not to be missed. . . . [A] long, low cracking announced the rupture of ice from the glacier, and then came the slow lunge of ice into the sea. This was calving–when part of a glacier breaks free and becomes an iceberg–a kind of birth.
The day recounted in this book could be seen as Isabel’s own calving. She’s clung to stories of the past as a protection against loss. Her largely passive crush on Spoke seems like the hope that he’ll somehow fill up what’s empty in her life. It’s the discovery that he’s about to break off and drift away, be lost to her, that pushes her into action. At the end of the book, she’s about to start telling a story at a party–her own story, for once, instead of one created around an old photograph. Perhaps she’s about to embark on her own life at last.
Closing this book, I couldn’t help spinning my own version of its future, in which Isabel and Spoke are reunited. But I also realized that while once its ending would have left me dissatisfied, now that I get my happy-ever-after fix from romance whenever I want it, I’m more able to enjoy the ambiguously hopeful end of Glaciers. Still, I’d love to read the contemporary romance version of these characters and their story too.