“A Wild Winter Swan”
By Gregory Maguire
William Morrow (240 pages, $27.99)
Gregory Maguire still has the magic touch.
He enchanted the world with “Wicked,” his novel about a soulful young witch, a book that turned into a hit Broadway musical. His publisher is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the book this year with a handsome new edition.
Since “Wicked,” Maguire has published several dozen books, for adults and for kids. He has plenty more tricks up his sleeve — and sleeves are an issue in his charming new novel, “A Wild Winter Swan.”
Laura’s world does not seem very magical to her. At 15, she is a “semi-orphan,” her father and brother dead, her mother disappeared. She’s living with her paternal grandparents, Ovid and Renata Ciardi, in a slightly dilapidated brownstone in New York City in the early 1960s.
Her grandparents are loving but busy, and a touch eccentric. Their wisecracking Irish cook, Mary Bernice, is kind to Laura, but the girl is deeply lonely.
She finds consolation in telling herself stories about her own life, as if she is a fictional character. Somehow “the told tale” gives shape to a life that seems to be going nowhere.
The book begins a couple of days before Christmas, a season that ought to be cheering but in the Ciardi household is fraught with tension. Laura’s grandmother is already on edge about hosting Christmas Eve dinner for her judgy sister and the sister’s rich new suitor when the ceiling in the front hall falls in, damaged by a leak.
Amid the bustle of workmen trying to repair the damage in time, Laura learns from her grandmother that she’ll soon be sent away to boarding school in Montreal. Bullied at school by a cadre of classic mean girls, she fought back — and ended up expelled.
Her bleak life looks even bleaker. “All of the great city around her was engaged and alive,” Maguire writes, “and Laura alone stood shoeless in the snow outside the warmly lit brownstones. The loneliness she felt was so keen it was almost elegant. It cut her. Every snowflake on her bare arms had steel blades. There was no future and no past in such immediate pain.”
Laura returns to clean out her school locker on the last day of the term and, for the last time, to read to first-graders in an after-school program. She chooses a Hans Christian Andersen story, one about a young girl whose 11 beloved brothers are turned into swans by one of those pesky wicked stepmothers.
The girl in the story finds a way to return them to human form by weaving moonlight into magical shirts. But she runs short of material, and one shirt lacks a sleeve. When she puts it on her favorite brother, he turns into a human with one arm and one swan’s wing.
Laura hardly gives the story a second thought. Then, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a huge and frightening snowstorm, outside her chilly little attic bedroom, Laura hears a loud thump. Then she hears thrashing. She’s afraid to look, but she leans out into the storm.
Earlier in the day, she had helped rescue one of the workmen who fell off a window ledge. In a dreamlike repetition, she hauls the flailing creature on the roof into her room. He’s half-conscious and bloodied and filthy, but here’s no mistaking it: He’s a handsome young man with one arm and one enormous swan’s wing.
I won’t spoil the difficulties, or the magic, that ensue. But Maguire tells Laura’s story in lush prose, laced with humor and poignancy, weaving the fabulous into the quotidian world. It’s a spell you’ll be happy to have cast upon you.