Alice Hoffman has always been able to bewitch a reader. She's done it before in books like "Turtle Moon," "Practical Magic," "The River King," and, most...

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“The Ice Queen”

by Alice Hoffman

Little, Brown, 211 pp., $23.95

Alice Hoffman has always been able to bewitch a reader. She’s done it before in books like “Turtle Moon,” “Practical Magic,” “The River King,” and, most recently, in “The Probable Future.” This time she strips her vibrant 18th novel, “The Ice Queen,” down to the basic elements of a fairy tale. It’s all there. Wishes. Lies. Absent Parents. Secrets. Magic. Love. Obsession. Death. Sex.

The unnamed narrator, a self-proclaimed “devotee of death,” is a small-town New Jersey librarian who regularly recommends Grimm’s tales over Andersen’s to 8-year-old readers. Better “bones tied in silken cloth” than a world of “virtuous, respectable characters.” She endorses the stuff of all fairy tales as “irrational, impossible, illogical” — for her, the power of wishes is “invisible and inevitable.”

No small wonder. When she was 8, she wished never to see her mother again. She gets this first wish, leaving herself and her older brother, Ned, to grow up with a grandmother. Ned becomes a meteorologist, moves to Florida, and marries a mathematician, Nina.

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The narrator’s second wish is to be struck by lightning. That, too, happens. After a brief recuperation, she relocates near Ned in Orlon Country. Ironically, it is the “epicenter of all the bad weather” in the state. The narrator becomes part of a university study in a support group of lightning-strike survivors.

Along the way, she develops an intense relationship with a 21-year-old student, Renny, who regularly wears heavy leather gloves. She also learns about The Naked Man (a roofer), The Dragon (who may breathe fire), and, most important, Lazarus Jones (an orange grower). Lazarus reportedly was dead for 40 minutes after he was struck by lightning.

It is the narrator’s third wish to meet Lazarus and uncover the mystery beyond death. As elemental opposites, he is fire, she is ice. Her incandescent involvement with Lazarus becomes the core of self-discovery.

When another deeply personal tragedy strikes Ned, Nina and the narrator, the “unrealized knowledge” of a lifelong secret is revealed. This leads to an emotional and literal whirlwind that brings “The Ice Queen” to an ending with the delicate jolt of an enthralling fairy tale.