Here we are again: at Christmastime with Gregory Maguire. Three years ago, with Hiddensee, Maguire dallied in the world of the Nutcracker, that absolute holiday staple for the would-be ballet dancers among us. (Me? Always a dancing flower, never a Sugar Plum Fairy.) With his new novel, A Wild Winter Swan, we’re back in the land of Grimm and Andersen, where boys might turn into swans, leaving brave, resourceful girls with little choice but to save them.
There is no shortage of retellings of “The Wild Swans,” as Rachel Ayers noted recently. Maguire sets his in a crumbling Upper East Side townhouse where a lonely girl in a cold upstairs room tells herself stories. She knows the one about the boy with one swan’s wing. But knowing a story and finding yourself living in it are different things entirely.
A Wild Winter Swan, like so many of Maguire’s novels, could have been crafted in a lab with me in mind: a fairy tale retold! An inventive lonely heroine! A touch of magic in a recognizable world!
And yet, it left me a little out in the cold. That isn’t to say that Maguire’s charms aren’t evident. He leans beautifully into imagery of owls and snow, holiday garlands and howling winds, elaborate meals prepared and yet not eaten. “Knuckles of hail rapped against Laura’s window with a musical jumpiness,” the book begins, then turns immediately into the less picturesque side of the scene: “Hardly tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, though, when the room was an icebox.” He will set you up just to knock you over, again and again and in every one of his books; everything beautiful comes with a sharp edge.
The house where Laura lives with her grandparents, Italian immigrants she calls Nonna and Nonno, is just one example: it’s all theirs, but it’s an expensive beast. Though Laura chafes against her grandparents’ expectations, she’s relatively sheltered from their pressing problems. Their shop, Ciardi’s Fine Foods and Delicacies, is struggling, and if it doesn’t stay afloat, how do they keep paying for the house and Laura’s school? As Christmas nears, the pressure increases: if the family can impress Nonna’s sister’s wealthy new husband, maybe he’ll provide a much-needed investment in the shop.
Christmas dinner must be perfect. Nothing can be allowed to go wrong.
Naturally, many things go wrong. But not before another problem arises: in the middle of the night, a dirty boy with a swan’s wing in place of one arm thumps onto the roof outside Laura’s window. What can she do but bring him inside? And what can he do but act according to his nature? Half wild, confused, and hungry, Hans crashes into Laura’s life, an impossible secret she is absolutely certain she has to keep.
Whether Hans actually is the youngest brother from “The Wild Swans” is somewhat up to us to decide. Maybe he’s a real swan boy. Maybe he’s a story Laura tells herself as a way to process her loneliness, grief, and fear, and the way those feelings manifest as destructive actions.
Booted from school for an incident that was not entirely her fault, Laura’s already facing the prospect of being sent away to a finishing school in Montreal (an expensive one, as everyone reminds her). Her father died before she was born, her brother was lost to a terrible accident, and her mother, facing too much grief, is somewhere upstate, not quite herself. Laura’s grandparents would prefer not to speak of the details.
Laura doesn’t speak of Hans, whose feral presence is a visceral thing, all dirty feathers, strong odors, and ill-fitting borrowed clothes. He presents a very earthly challenge in contrast to Laura’s loneliness and personal conflicts at school. He is also something outside of herself that maybe she can fix. But he doesn’t eat lasagna, and he doesn’t listen. Maguire never lets us—or Laura—forget this is no ordinary boy. Still, magical as he might be, he’s not half as compelling as the rest of the residents of and visitors to the house.
Laura narrates bits of her life to herself, rewrites it, invents metaphors, and uses her stories to investigate how she feels about things. Her versions of events give us access to the feelings she won’t necessarily speak aloud—the shameful ones, the dramatic ones, the mean ones. As uncertain as she is, her sly humor creeps out when she’s comfortable with people, and Maguire gives her a perfect teenager’s ability to say what an adult wants to hear—while making it excruciatingly clear that she means something else entirely. Her relationship with her grandparents is fraught and layered, and when she starts to make a friends, her discomfort and uncertainty are palpable. How do you ask people to help you? How do you give help? How many ways can a person be loved and lonely at once?
Maguire works to present a complex vision of 1960s Manhattan, noticing nuances in behavior, language, and class for the Ciardis, their Irish cook, their friendly workmen, Laura’s apartment-dwelling classmates, and the guests at their fateful Christmas dinner. But this book is at its best when it sticks close to Laura. She thinks unkind thoughts, makes trouble for her grandparents, and breaks a cruel classmate’s nose, but when the swan boy needs her help, she steps out of all of her comfort zones to aid him.
A Wild Winter Swan is a slim little book, a fairy tale stretched and reshaped into a 20th century American tale about immigration, success, family, and growth. It’s featherlight but sharply detailed, and for all Nonna’s passion, there’s a coolness to the way Maguire spins out his yarn. Here and there, a dated word choice knocked me out of the story, but it was always Laura, crankily enduring her own coming-of-age, who brought me back in.
A Wild Winter Swan is available October 6th from William Morrow.