Reader’s Journal: Glaciers by Alexis Smith

About ten years ago I grew tired of chick lit and its tropes: the mini-skirted twenty- or thirty-something women who couldn’t love (or love the right person); the eating disorders; the sassy best friends; the nagging mothers; the jobs where said mini-skirted women were overqualified, unappreciated, and underpaid. No matter how smart the writing, no matter if the book in my hand was a novel or a collection of short stories, they all began to blur together for me. To this day, I am leery of reading any book that has a woman (or women) of a certain age as its protagonist(s). And when I do try, I generally find everything the same as I left it. (I’m looking at you, Commencement.)

Given my…well, misgivings about stories involving twenty-something single women, I was surprised to find myself interested in Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers after reading David Abrams’s mini review of it on Book Riot’s Best Books of 2012. In fact, I was so swayed by his review that I went straight over to Amazon and downloaded it to my Kindle. (Sorry, Kindle and e-book haters. To appease you, I have included the link to the publisher’s site  instead of a link to the dark empire.)

How happy I am I bought this lovely little novel. First, let me be clear: Glaciers in no way belongs under the banner of “chick lit.” Even though it has a dressmaker’s dummy on the cover, even though the blurb mentions that the protagonist has “dreams of the perfect dress” and “unrequited love for the former soldier who fixes her computer,” you should not for one second confuse this with chick lit. This novel is just plain lit, period.

Glaciers is a day in the life of Isabel, who conserves books at the Portland public library. We follow her through her present day; we flash back to her past. We learn that she wants to travel to Amsterdam. We learn that she collects old pictures and postcards. We learn about her relationship with Spoke, “the former soldier who fixes her computer.” We learn that what’s between them is more complicated than unrequited love.

The book opens with Isabel “remembering” the story of her family’s move from Seattle to Alaska, and how on their ferry trip across the water she saw a glacier calving:

Like other great creatures before them, the glaciers were dying, and their death, so distant and unimaginable, was a spectacle not to be missed. The ferry slowed where a massive glacier met the ocean; a long, low cracking announced the rupture of ice from the glacier; then came the slow lunge of the ice into the sea. This is calving–when part of a glacier breaks free and becomes an iceberg–a kind of birth. The calving sent waves, rocking the ferry. Hands gripped railings and feet separated on gridded steel. There were shouts of appreciation and fear, but nothing like grief, not even ordinary sadness.

At the end of the book, at the end of the day, another character asks Isabel to tell a story about longing. This book is about Isabel’s longing, and how really how all stories are about some kind of longing, because they always represent something that no longer exists–the past:

Her story could be told in other people’s things. The postcards and the photographs. A garnet ring and a needlepoint of the homestead. The aprons hanging from her kitchen drawer. Her soft, faded, dog-eared copy of Little House in the Big Woods. A closet full of dresses sewn before she was born.

All these things tell a story, but is it hers? It has always been more than an aesthetic choice, holding onto the past; it’s a kind of mourning for the things that do not last.

We do not last, she thinks. In the end, only the stories survive.

Glaciers is a novel about about the stories that survive us when we are gone, about the stories we are left with when others leave us. Smith infuses almost every line of this book with longing, but her prose is graceful and never melodramatic. In the hands of a different type of writer, this story could have been too precious, but Smith has such wonderful control over the mood and Isabel has such depth of character that she never becomes a type. If you have a few free hours over the holidays, or if you’re trying to meet that year-end book count, I highly recommend picking up Glaciers. You won’t regret it. You might even read it twice.

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