I used to think that books could be firmly divided into two categories: plot-driven and character-driven. Plot-driven books thrive on heart-pumping activity. Car chases! Spies! The search for lost treasure! Character-driven books rely on the characters, their actions, and their personal growth to drive the book along. However, in Glaciers, Alexis M. Smith has added a new category to my list: word-driven.
The best way that I can describe Glaciers is that it is for people who are in love with words. Smith has managed to write an elegant, thin novel about a day in the life of a woman named Isabel, but it is simultaneously about the past. Not just her past, but the past of others: ancestors, coworkers, friends, strangers she finds on postcards and pictures and through their vintage clothing. It is about how to tell the story of this past while in the present.
The characters build upon this by telling each other stories, and the book ends when Isabel is about to tell her story at a party she is attending. Presumably, it will be the story we have just been reading, a fact which makes for a neat ending, but one that I felt like I had read before. It is an ending very like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and, in fact, both books share a lot of themes in common. The difference is that Glaciers keeps us at a distance with a third-person point of view throughout the whole. We can see what Isabel is thinking, but we are not getting the story from her, and we do not get to hear her story as it is told to the people she meets at the party. There is an invisible narrator telling the story for her, and I felt like that sometimes acted against the narrative.
Most of the time, when I am reading a book, I stop to think about the characters. That didn’t happen while I was reading this. Instead, I would pause to consider the language. Although it didn’t take very long to read, I would find myself stopping at points to think about why the language worked as well as it did. I was not entirely enthralled with the plot or the characters, but I did enjoy the writing. This is one of those strange books that I would not recommend for everyone. If, after reading the first few pages, it does not grab your attention, you will probably not want to read this book.
To be honest, after finishing Glaciers, I am not sure that I liked this slim novel.The closure is a bit artificial; we don’t find out what happens between the main character and her potential love interest. We don’t even get much of the background between Isabel and him. Will they keep in touch? Will they even ever see each other again? It is hard for me to care about a book when the characters are not that interesting, when their actions are not explained, and when they do not show any personal growth. Isabel ends the book in the same state she begins it. She will wake up the next week and go to work and sometimes think about her lost love, but I doubt that it will change her everyday life very much.
What I am saying, I guess, is that the focus on language over plot and characters led to a dull story. It was lovely language, yes, but there was not much else of substance going on with the story. There are plenty of books that I would re-read, ones that are not half as well written, because the author knows how to tell a fascinating story complete with complex characters. However, I know already that I will not be re-reading Glaciers.