Melanie works a less-than-desirable job at a tech company, having affairs with married men in her spare time. She is unaware that her mother, Kathleen, is really her aunt. Her mother, Irene, was pregnant by her boyfriend Sammy at the age of 14. When Sammy died falling through thin ice on a frozen river, Irene chose to give Melanie to his older sister to raise. If the Ice Had Held follows these three women through their lives and struggles.
“Upset by the divorce, Mel used to pine and pine for Andy, and Irene wanted to tell her, You don’t have to be so upset about it, you know, he’s not your real dad. She wanted to tell her, I picked your name, I named you.
But what good would that have done? She should know as well as anyone that’s not how family worked.”
The novel is told out of order, giving us slices of each of the various characters lives. At times, it almost reads like a series of interconnected short stories. It makes for an effective way of telling the story, slowly piecing together the parts of their lives, both the bright moments and the traumatic. The first chapter gives a brief telling of how Sammy broke through the ice and drowned while trying to take a shortcut home across a frozen river. The rest of the book shows how this one tragedy spread like cracks in ice to all the people around him.
When we first met Melanie, arguably the main character, we learn of her fixation on her job and her affairs with married men. As the book goes on, we learn about her family’s past, including (who she thinks is) her mother divorcing her husband Andy, who she believes to be her birth father. It shows the impact the events had on her and her view of relationships.
A theme in the novel is how we often idealize how much better things would be if we made one different decision or if one unfortunate thing hadn’t happened. Just as the title suggests, Irene wonders how her life would have turned out had the ice held and she was able to marry Sammy to raise Melanie together. Melanie wonders how things would have turned out had Andy stayed with Kathleen. Kathleen wonders how things would have turned out had she not introduced herself to Andy. The book, thankfully, doesn’t push a lesson of “living with no regrets.” It simply portrays how people tend to cope with the dissatisfactions in their lives.
Fox does an excellent job of developing her characters into painfully real people. For example, she shows how Brian, one of the married men that Melanie has an affair with, became more and more distant from his wife after they had children. He even takes to sleeping in his office just to have some alone time. This culminates in a funny scene where he gets a vasectomy without telling his wife, resulting in her finding him writhing in pain on the bathroom floor and dumping water on him in anger.
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If the Ice Had Held is a solid work of realist fiction. Fox tells a compelling story of people who grew up in unusual and dysfunctional families and how it affects them. Her prose is poetic without being overbearing and her characters are so real, they feel like people I’ve known. This is a novel well-worth your time.
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