Hannah Jackson Reviews Wendy J. Fox’s latest novel If the Ice Had Held

In Wendy J. Fox’s If the Ice Had Held, Melanie faces a setback when the software company she works for begins downsizing. At the same time, she is also trying to overcome her impulse to sleep with married men, reflecting on her childhood and realizing where her avoidance of commitment stems from. While the novel centers around Melanie and the scandal surrounding her birth and upbringing, Fox considers the perspectives of several other characters, interweaving their stories across several decades and bringing them together in often unexpected ways. In a story about the trials of grief, sexism, motherhood, marriage, divorce, and more, Fox places her characters into several challenging moments; however, through these trials she also demonstrates the importance of resilience, dignity, and mutual support.

Despite Fox’s inclusion of several characters whose perspectives shift from the late 1900s to the early 2000s, each character, no matter whether they are a major or a minor character, is fleshed out over the course of the novel. Fox primarily achieves this through her expert use of interiority and attention to detail. At the beginning of the novel, Fox examines the effect of Sammy’s death on Kathleen as she subjects herself to the cold weather, wondering, “How cold do you have to be before you die?”, sleeping with her window open without blankets, and submerging her arm in the river her brother drowned in, all to try and understand what her brother felt as he froze to death. However, as the novel continues, we see Kathleen’s determination channel itself into supporting and protecting Irene:

She wanted this sameness, this feeling of doing things right . . . she understood why her sisters had left. The chance to change. The chance to have their own table, something that belonged to them. Like when she had lied to the school counselor about Sammy’s betrothed, the chance to take the story and bend it as much as the facts would allow—not always to a happy ending, but a better one.

Through Kathleen’s interiority, Fox does a wonderful job of depicting Kathleen’s character development and how Sammy’s death fuels her to sacrifice her own dreams to support Irene in any way she can in order to not only stay connected to Sammy through Irene’s child, but also to fulfill a sense of duty she feels to help a girl who can barely help herself. While this is just one example of Fox’s attention to character development, she does not fail to delve into each of her other characters in some kind of way, whether in depicting Lucy Estelle’s trials as a single mother, Melanie’s struggle with an early sexual encounter and her parents’ divorce, or Jenny’s and Brian’s rocky marriage that is on the verge of divorce but is solidified through Brian’s recommitment to fidelity.

In addition to effectively exhibiting the development of her characters, Fox also possesses a keen insight into detail that adds a level of depth and beauty to her novel. As one reads If the Ice Had Held, there are several images that stick out and remain in one’s mind long after the moment has passed. In a chapter from the perspective of a younger Melanie, she describes her walks home with her mother from her job at the bank, noting the familiar shapes on the concrete and how “It was not too far, she learned, the space between happy and sad.” Through this detailed and eloquent image, Fox depicts a mother-daughter relationship that is defined by an emotional bond, something that she maintains throughout her novel.

Another unforgettable image is the contrast created before and after Kathleen’s and Andrew’s divorce. Before, Melanie and her parents work to cultivate a home rooted in love, which Fox represents through the growing philodendrons whose vines are hung delicately along the kitchen ceiling. After the divorce, though, Kathleen takes the vines down carefully “in a coil in one hand like a lasso,” but when Melanie sets fire to a pile of her father’s belongings, reflecting, “She inhaled heat and wondered if her father’s breath ever caught ash like this, ash on her face, ash in his lungs,” Kathleen runs into the room with “a torn philodendron vine laced through her fingers.” Through this image, Fox artistically renders not only the delicate nature of marriage and how easily it can be upended, but also the effects of divorce on a child, such as anger and resentment. As a result of creating detailed and artful images that she spreads throughout the novel, Fox adds greater complexity to her characters and finds innovative ways to convey their emotional and psychological reactions to certain situations. Moreover, through these images, she is able to tackle complex topics like marriage, divorce, and grief in a creative manner way that makes them easier to understand.

If the Ice Had Held takes readers through the perspectives of several different characters, some of whom are experiencing similar trials and others who stand apart in their struggles. Because Fox incorporates so many characters into her novel, she effectively enables her readers to invest in the lives of her characters and easily connect with any of the trials individual characters are facing. In addition, by examining the hope and resilience of her characters, Fox also instills hope in her readers, thus expanding the connection between reader and text. Moreover, over the course of the novel, Fox also reveals how each of the characters personally relate to one another, whether by blood or acquaintanceship. As a result, she unveils the idea of a preexisting union present between each of us. Overall, although Fox writes a story about a cast of characters in a town in Denver, the issues she examines and the relationships she draws between her characters speak to the human experience, causing If the Ice Had Held to be innovative and effective in its ability to reach any number of readers who feel disconnected in an increasingly populated world.

If the Ice Had Held, by Wendy J. Fox. Santa Fe, New Mexico: SFWP, May 2019. 260 pages. $15.95, paper.

Hannah Jackson is a graduate student at Winthrop University pursuing her MA in English. She is also a graduate assistant at Winthrop’s Writing Center. Her primary research interests include feminist and queer theory, and the representation of female characters and women writers, as well as the perception of the female body and its interaction with various spaces. Following her graduation in December 2019, she plans to pursue a job in the editing field.

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