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Survival of the Prettiest

HOUSE UNDER SNOW: A Novel; By Jill Bialosky; Harcourt: 242 pp., $24

July 14, 2002|FRANCIE LIN | Francie Lin is the associate editor of the Threepenny Review.

Willa Cather once observed that in the whole of literature, there are really only two or three stories that repeat themselves over and over again as fiercely as if they had never been written before. "House Under Snow," a lucid, finely crafted first novel by acclaimed poet Jill Bialosky, remains true to Cather's maxim, detailing in sharp, textured prose the rise and fall of a doomed first love.

The story concerns Anna Crane, a young girl growing up in Ohio during the Vietnam era. Anna is the middle daughter of a family in slow decline after the death of her father. Without the firm anchor and touch of her husband, Anna's mother, Lilly, has devolved into an erratic, willful ghost of a woman, convinced that her beauty is her only recourse against loneliness and poverty. At once seductive and pathetic, Lilly embarks on what Anna describes as a "dating career," neglecting her daughters in order to go out with violent men, abusive men, men "who looked at her too long and made her crazy."

Part of what makes Lilly's weakness as poignant as it is infuriating is that its source lies in a dark lesson from family history. Lilly's mother escaped the Nazis in World War II by dint of her looks. " 'The priest told my mother's parents that he only had room for one of their two daughters,' " she says to Anna. " 'My mother was chosen because she was more beautiful. She later found out that her sister Edith was killed by the Nazis the next day.' " Lilly in turn passes on this idea of sexuality as a talisman against all danger to her three young daughters. "[W]hen you don't come from money, all you have is yourself," she tells Anna and her sisters. "You must focus all your energy on becoming as beautiful as a blossom, as perfect as a piece of fruit.... I was raised to believe that for a Jew to fit in you had to make sure not to make your own needs or presence too visible."

Stifled by an atmosphere in which love and survival are contingent upon something as fleeting as one's appearance, Anna longs for "a kind of love that [is] impenetrable ... tough and enduring." What the teenager finds is a boy named Austin whose "damaged and wild streak" reminds her of her mother, and a tempestuous relationship ensues. Bialosky captures the purity and desperation of adolescent love in thick, sensual descriptions tinged by the wisdom of distance, since the story is told by the adult Anna.

Though beautifully written, "House Under Snow" is a little too predictable. The dangerous young man (Austin is eventually drawn into the underworld of gambling), the sensitive daughter, Lilly's boorish men--even Anna's sisters--fulfill their stereotypes as the oldest and youngest children without particular distinction. Except for Lilly, the novel's characters are rather stock, and the betrayal that occurs is therefore diminished; we can predict what's coming because we've seen it before. Nevertheless, Bialosky, with her delicate touch and clear eye for human frailty, is an author of talent, and "House Under Snow" an elegant debut.

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