Book Review: The Wolves of Midwinter (Anne Rice)

        Considering that it comes from the same mind that has given us rockstar vampires, angels and assassins, and witches that mingle with giants, it seems somewhat unimaginative to call The Wolves of Midwinter the strangest novel that Anne Rice has ever written. Rice's books have always defied genre labels -- and, in some cases, actually created some. And although (if you are lucky enough to still live near a book store) you will probably find this book in the horror section sandwiched between three shelves of Stephen King and right before a more modest selection of Peter Straub (it does, after all, contain werewolves and ghosts, among other things), this novel has no more in common with them than it does with Nicholas Sparks . The supernatural is here, permeating throughout, and Rice writes of it with as much mastery as she always has. But in this book, more than any other, the supernatural elements seem secondary as Rice explores some more grounded themes of family, friendship, and tradition. In doing so, Rice has gifted us with a work that is beautiful, atmospheric, and unlike anything else she has ever written.

        Last year, while reading The Wolf Gift (see my review:http://www.amazon.com/review/R3M5OVC6FVSDYJ/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm ) I worried that Rice had revealed all her cards too soon -- we were given an origin story and an entire history of the first werewolf (something that happened much more gradually in her other series), and I was concerned that there would be nothing to add in later works. Thankfully, this is not the case, and Anne throws a couple of curves at us here -- and even makes us question the truth of what we thought we already knew. The importance and necessity of myths and storytelling and the relative nature of "truth" are just a few of the things that Rice explores as she takes us deeper into these characters, and it is a rewarding experience to get to know them better.

       If the end of the saga of the vampires and witches occasionally felt a bit ponderous, there is none of that in these recent novels. Rice is writing about this new set of characters with a delightful vigor. There is an optimism here, a cheerfulness and hope that was absent in earlier works. It is lighter in tone, but that should not be mistaken for frivolity. Rice -- and her characters -- still ponder the deepest questions of life and death, and do so in beautiful language. There is a rapturous quality to this prose, at times bordering on ecstasy, and it is here and in Reuben's struggle to understand the nature of eternity against the backdrop of this haunted house and within his haunted mind that I will make snobbish literary jaws run agape by dropping a couple of "D" words: Dickens and Dostoevsky.

       And, indeed, how can a young man, gifted with immortality in the prime of his life, truly grasp the nature of mortality? We are asked here to forgive Reuben for much -- and this brings me to what I refer to as "The Problem of Celeste".

       Reading this novel, I felt that Rice expects us to spare a certain amount of patience and leeway in Reuben's direction. He, in turn, is asked to be patient with Celeste, while she is lashing out at him and his new family of "Distinguished Gentlemen" in the midst of a personal crisis. Reuben has a viscerally negative reaction to being called out on his flaws (as Celeste perceives them), and is in many ways validated in his near-disgust by Felix, who implores patience and understanding for a crazy woman's outbursts.

       My problem is that I never felt Celeste was crazy or unjustified. Without revealing any plot points, Reuben leaves her in a somewhat messy situation, while he goes off to live what she perceives to be a life of idleness, luxury, and unimaginable wealth in a mansion that was gifted to him out of nowhere while she has to work hard every day as she has done for her entire life.

       One of the strange things I've noticed in Rice's fiction over the years is that she seems strongest when writing in a male voice, and her male characters are often more noticeably nuanced than most of her women. I think Celeste -- and even Reuben's mother, the brilliant and hard working but not necessarily spiritually inclined (though interestingly named) Grace, though at the periphery of this story, are two of Rice's more interesting female characters. Grace and Celeste represent a grounding point, a link to Reuben's tenuous grip on his old life with his old family in the "real" world, a world that he is increasingly detaching and distancing himself from. I can't say that I blame him. Not to be vulgar, but if I had the choice between immortal life in a mansion filled with hot older men, I think I'd stop returning my ex's texts as well. I suspect I'd be...busy.

       Reuben's main ties to his birth family and the world outside of Nideck Point are the men in his life, and some of the strongest parts of this story are when we get to go deeper into his brother Jim (a troubled Catholic priest), and his father, the poet Phil. Jim, in particular, is a character that I have wanted to know more about, and I think he is the most fully realized and complex of this diverse group of men. I think he's a strong enough character to actually have carried his own spinoff novel, but I'm glad he's here adding a bit of grit and vitality to this lofty and ethereal tale.

       My issues with Reuben actually enhanced my experience with this novel in some ways. I'm not stretching for praise here, I honestly mean this -- because this is (at least for me) above all else a book about family, just like in real life we are forced to accept family as they are, whether or not we agree with them or their choices. Spending this time with Reuben helped make me aware of some of my own prejudices -- much of contemporary genre fiction has a decidedly working class slant, and this is a perspective I myself am more comfortable with. Being made aware of my knee-jerk reaction to Reuben's wealth and allowing myself to experience the world from his perspective is an important point to bring up here. Studies have been shown that reading novels helps build empathy, a point I used to scoff at, but now I understand why.

       Another area in which I feel The Wolves of Midwinter improves upon its predecessor is with its concept of good and evil. I occasionally felt The Wolf Gift had a surprisingly simplistic black and white stance on morality, especially considering that it came from an author known for giving us some of fiction's great ethically complex characters. While I love the idea that a sentient mind combined with animal senses can discern good and bad and make the appropriate judgment calls via smell the way dogs can often sense bad intent, I felt that the "fight the evildoer!" stance Reuben took at first was a little juvenile. I was very pleased to see this concept developed further here, and the gray areas and their repercussions on those who deal out life and death are explored to great satisfaction.

       The novel's other thematic points that stood out for me regard the nature of tradition and ritual -- how they shape our lives, how they change over time, and the ways they can be both healthy and damaging, expansive and limiting. The complex role of tradition is present even in the writing itself -- Rice further develops her werewolf mythology here, and continues her own unique way of somehow being able to honor tradition while also giving it the middle finger. However, it is ghosts, not werewolves, that we generally meet in tales of Midwinter, and Rice brings them into this world in a smooth and natural way. If the merging of the Vampires and Witches sometimes seemed somewhat jarring, this is a much more harmonious marriage. If The Wolf Gift gave us the heat and the fire we associate with the wolf transformation and the pulsing vitality of rushing through the forest on the hunt, The Wolves of Midwinter does the opposite. It sacrifices some of that heat and plot for something that Rice is the queen of: atmosphere. It doesn't matter how many writers have done it before -- there is something so rich, beautiful, and ultimately satisfying about a good winter ghost story, and as Reuben sits and broods and ponders the nature of the afterlife, lost in his thoughts only to be ripped out of his head by a rustling curtain or a face at the window, we are right there with him. When we do break from the house and rush through the woods, Rice continues her exploration of the nature of the wolf gift and what it means to be part animal and part human. The idea of a fully conscious and sentient mind in a bestial body is a fascinating one, as much werewolf lore makes a dissonant split between the two selves. We also get our first glimpse of wolf sex. This was a particularly powerful scene that moved me (in more ways than one...sorry) and was, in many ways, a logical progression and exciting culmination of a theme that Rice has explored throughout her entire career: the idea of gender, and its flexibility and arguable irrelevance. In wolf form, gender becomes even more arbitrary, as secondary sex characteristics become less visible and the distinction becomes less important, and seems to heavily imply that at our core, we know that on some level these things are useless. All of this stuff is presented in elegant prose -- simply put, this is Rice at her best.

        As I said, this is a strange book. Not a lot of "stuff" happens, and it instead feels more like we are between books and simply visiting with the Distinguished Gentlemen for the holidays. It seems like an odd choice at first, but I think it works well here -- we get to learn a little more about all these characters and by witnessing their holiday celebrations, learn something of their race and their individual attitudes. It's a short book by Rice standards, and while I'm generally a greedy and gluttonous reader that rushes through novels in a day or two, I took my time and savored this for over a week. What it lacks in plot advancement, it more than makes up for in the richness of its ideas and the beauty of its language. It improves upon its predecessor in nearly every way, and I can't wait to see where Rice takes us next. At this time of year, this is definitely a novel to bring under a blanket with you, to curl up with as the nights grow long and cold. Savor this experience as howling winds outside the window cause the curtain to flutter, making you glance up from the page and nervously ask that wonderful and awful question that has spurned so many great stories: "what if...?"

Rating: A-

@robrussin

on November 4, 2013