Snow Angels, written by Stewart O’Nan, published in 2003.
The short version: Read this book. Buy this book. Preferably, not in that order.
Hopefully, though, you’re not here for the short version.
The long version: Snow Angels represents the ultimate culmination of the craft of writing.
Framed as a series of memories, Snow Angels follows Arthur Parkinson as he recalls the time in his life when he understood the unyeilding reality of the world. That nothing came with happy endings and that even the best of intentions lead only to disappointment, if not with everyone else, certainly with himself.
Arthur’s parents are going through a bitter separation, his former baby sitter is found dead in woods, and he falls in love for the first time. That’s it. That’s the plot. Not exactly the action packed Percy Jackson and the whatever-generic-mythological-stereotype-I-can-Name or the pseudo philosophical depth of the Hunger Games: I-Lifted-the-plot-scene-for-scene-from-Battle-Royale, but it doesn’t need to be. The characters and their perspective on events drive this tale.
The best quality about Snow Angels, shared by one of my favorite movies, 5 Centimeters Per Second, is that it exemplifies the idea of simply being a slice of life book. As the story unfolds, the conclusion comes, not with a nice tidied ending, with life better for all those involved, but with the emotional realization that what has occurred is simply life. Nothing about Arthur or his mother and father will get better. Everything from the murder of his baby sitter to the divorce of his parents simply is.
Writing, as profession, means that the writer must win or earn the readers trust. Sometimes, far too often, writers attempt to earn this trust by creating thin emotional attachments to characters and tying the story up neatly in the end. O’Nan takes that premise, grabs hold of our emotions as a reader, and never lets go. He doesn’t rely on gimmicks of quick actions and lots of character references that pass for depth and emotion connection. No, he earns that with quiet character moments, building to the realization in the end that Arthur’s crappy existence isn’t going to get any better. No magical resolution to end Snow Angels, instead replaced with an emotional resolution where the readers catharsis is the acknowledgment that Snow Angels mirrors life so well.
O’Nan’s tendency towards this fascination of realistic life is a core strength Snow Angels builds around. The quieter moments, like Arthur falling in love for the first time and his insistence that he won’t let his parents ruin what’s perfect in his life. And yet…. right? Because that’s life. Or the moments we don’t see, the chasm between his parents, seen only from the perspective of our narrator as a young boy.
More than just the character moments (and there are plenty), Snow Angels is built on the language and prose that forms its narrative. The pacing and flow of the book is superb. Coming in at just under 190 pages, Snow Angels doesn’t take long to read, but it doesn’t matter, I wouldn’t have put the book down no matter how short or long it was. The simple, straight forward narrative delivers perfectly the tone and pitch of the story. O’Nan’s voice comes across strongly, the conviction of a teenage boy in stark contrast to his older, jaded self. That the narrative voice feels different, yet consistent is a testament to O’Nan’s skill.
When I first came across Snow Angels, I picked it up for a book signing. I liked the cover. And a movie based on the book was being screened at my college. I skipped out on that. Whatever. Books are almost always superior to their movie counterparts.
Digressions aside, I can’t recommend this book enough. For anyone interested in a slice of life, methodically paced, character study, this book should absolutely make the short list.