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Snow Angels by Stewart O'Nan
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's review
Feb 04, 14

Read in September, 2009

I first discovered Stewart O'Nan through his non-fiction when I read The Circus Fire: A True Story. It was a very good book and ever since then I thought I should read his fiction. I am glad I did because it is also very good, especially Snow Angels which is impressive for a first novel. Growing up in a small town myself and playing in the high school band I could relate in part to the story of Arthur Parkinson. While I have not experienced the tragedy and difficult home life he relates in his story and that of his neighbor Annie Marchand, the author brings them alive in his vivid portrayal of their lives and the lives of their family and friends.
The story links two families, almost indirectly, by a tragedy that affects them in enormously painful ways, it is a specific example of a universal theme. Set in a rural community in Pennsylvania in mid-1970, the story builds around the lives of the two main characters, Arthur Parkinson and Annie Marchand. Arthur, who narrates the chapters about his part in this heartbreaking story, is a 14-year-old high school student. He is at that age when he is too old to be a boy but still too young to drive, who is dealing with his family’s slowly decaying break-up. At the same time, the narrator who gives us the picture of her dismal, failing marriage and careless lifestyle. She is a woman unknowingly spiraling into deeper danger as her estranged husband loses his grip. After attempting suicide he becomes zealously religious and tries to win back his wife and young daughter. The two characters live in the same town and have some tenuous connections: Marchand was Parkinson's beloved babysitter for a time; Parkinson's father worked briefly with Marchand's husband.
One of the many ways in which O'Nan succeeds in his narrative lies in his depiction of the casual acquaintance of small-town inhabitants who rub up against each other almost daily without ever achieving a deeper connection. Marchand's story is more direct than Arthur's as it is told in the present tense, and the fairly lengthy alternating passages play off each other in a stop-and- start rhythm. While these characters are not terribly self-aware, O'Nan never condescends to them or makes their troubles seem inconsequential, even at comical moments like Parkinson's first stabs at romance with an eerie twin who shares his bus stop or his visits to a therapist. The unnatural seems natural and the uncommon as common as it can be through O'Nan's elegant yet simple prose which leads the reader through the events that shaped these lives. I recommend this novel and author (and the film version as well).

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