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A Wild Winter Swan


A Wild Winter Swan

A WILD WINTER SWAN opens in 1960s New York with teenager Laura, a heartful and misunderstood loner. Still emotionally sore from a family tragedy that left her abandoned by her mother, Laura is expelled from the last high school that will take her. She has the rest of her winter break to make up for her misdeeds, or she will be sent away to Montreal. But without even a single friend or any hint of a second chance, she feels hopeless.

Meanwhile, the Italian relatives who took her in prepare for the most important Christmas dinner of their lives --- one that, if it goes wrong, could cost the family their well-being. A few nights before the big meal, a troublesome boy shows up at the window. A boy with a wing. To Laura, who needs this holiday to be absolutely perfect, this is anything but a fairy tale, no matter how mysterious he may be.

Gregory Maguire wrote WICKED and AFTER ALICE, two acclaimed novels that brilliantly reimagine the worlds of their classic stories. Here, he takes inspiration from the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Wild Swans,” in which a young princess works tirelessly to save her brothers by turning them from swans to humans. No prior knowledge of the original is needed to fully enjoy Maguire’s new take, and it is summed up for those who haven’t read it. Those who have will notice fun hints of the story hidden throughout the novel. It should be said that A WILD WINTER SWAN is not a retelling of the original. Rather, it is a realistic exploration of what could happen if the aftermath of the fairy tale were to collide with the turning point of an unrelated girl’s life.

"This is a novel that is meant to be read in a book nook with thick socks and a winter sweater. It is a very comfortable read, where moments of stress and sadness bloom into scenes of real mystery and beauty."

The story is intimate and personal, digging deep into New York’s Upper East Side in ways that sometimes feel slice-of-life. The characters are small in the big city, but the stakes are high for them. Laura is thoughtful of the world around her. We get the sense that she doesn’t understand how to take responsibility for mistakes she has made, no matter how much she wants to do so. The family’s housemaid, Mary Bernice, is empathetic and friendly, even when kitchen shenanigans go haywire. Even minor characters, like the two handymen who repair leaks in Laura’s apartment, are bursting with personality. The most powerfully written character is her grandmother, known as Nonna, who pushes Laura to face her past. Nonna is like a real grandmother, at times horrifying and threatening. Her goodwill has been hardened from surviving as an Italian immigrant in New York.

We take in the smells and sounds of the city through these three-dimensional characters. Their gifts to us, through Maguire’s beautiful prose, are kids slipping in snow, tiny owls, featherlike snowflakes, apartment parlors, teen holiday angst and baked bread. Children make jokes about JFK, the grandparents stress over the risks they will take to stay in America, and Mary Bernice connects us to a more destitute New York, where friends are necessary tools for survival.

At times, A WILD WINTER SWAN feels less like a fantasy novel and more like a family drama play with elements of magical realism. Conversations are deep and rich in subtext. Seemingly insignificant family details could mean life or death. And every step of the way, the imagery perfectly captures the feelings of the characters without ever stepping off the page and telling you why they are there. For example, much of the story involves wounds and the healing of them, whether they be painful memories, unhealed wings or bloody noses. Broken pipes leave the school closed off, apartments drool with leaks after a snowfall, and a battle with nature pursues in bathtubs, streets and ceilings. It’s quite an experience to watch the author make symbolic gestures that connect with the story at hand and then slowly grow them as the plot evolves.

You won’t find the clunky language of fairy tales here, but rather a strong voice that has been charmingly inlaid with Maguire’s sympathetic style. It feels nice to slow down and take in the poetry of the language. Certain sentences stand out as incredibly poignant, connecting facts and fancies of swans to a Christmas falling apart. The topic of swans is revisited at every opportunity, until the only reasonable way to make the story true is to involve the fairy tale version of one. When magic is finally included, it gives the impression of a dream overlayed on the otherwise accurate world. It’s that subtle sort of storytelling trick that, looking back on the novel, we can’t remember what was real or made up. It doesn’t matter, because it was all true.

This is a novel that is meant to be read in a book nook with thick socks and a winter sweater. It is a very comfortable read, where moments of stress and sadness bloom into scenes of real mystery and beauty. The climax brings cathartic surprises without becoming too overwhelming or explosive. It’s also a book that might be helpful to anybody going through a grievous Christmas. We get to see Laura navigate that experience, which might give the freedom to relax and sink into sweet words.

The characters, the reveals and the tensions are all brilliantly interwoven, which made me wonder at certain points: How did Maguire DO this? How did he explore these feelings? And make them all feel somehow aching, yet keep me grateful for and interested in these characters? By the end, I felt somewhat sad that I had finished spending time with Laura, her grandparents and the boy with one wing. A WILD WINTER SWAN is unlike anything I have read in a long time --- in its intimacy, simplicity and welcoming solace.

Reviewed by Austin Ruh on October 16, 2020

A Wild Winter Swan
by Gregory Maguire