Books

Alexis Smith's Glaciers

Melting Icecaps and the Perfect Party Dress

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One of the more benign of Portland's hipster subcategories (the exhaustive taxonomy of which is of interest only to hipsters themselves) is occupied by tea-drinking, vintage cardigan-wearing girls who look like librarians. Maybe they're all a little more polished than they were 10 years ago, a little more likely to be pecking at a laptop than scratching away in a Harriet the Spy notebook, but you can still find 'em at every coffee shop in the city, drinking Earl Grey and looking solemn.

Isabel, the protagonist of debut novelist Alexis M. Smith's Glaciers, is one of the tea-drinking girls. She works in a library, shops vintage, and has a crush on a bike-riding coworker named Spoke. He drinks his coffee out of a Mason jar; we know his type, too.

But the great thing about Glaciers is that you don't know Spoke, not really; and you don't know Isabel, even though you've seen 1,000 girls like her before. The novel takes place over the course of a single day—from the morning, when Isabel bumps into Spoke in the break room and thinks about inviting him to a party; to her trip to a vintage store to find the perfect party dress; to the party itself, in an Old Town loft, where guests drink and dance and tell stories.

Glaciers is set in Portland, but neither of its main characters are natives: They've been shaped by different landscapes than the dreary, romantic one in which they find themselves as adults. Spoke grew up in Wisconsin, riding along on his veterinarian grandpa's farm visits and learning to fix things. Isabel lived in Alaska until she was 11, where she "saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture."

As Isabel moves through her day, Smith intercuts the narrative with flashbacks to Isabel's childhood in a landscape that is itself irrevocably changing, in ways cataclysmic and sad: "Isabel cannot read magazine articles or books about the North. She cannot watch the nature programs about the migrations of birds and mammals dwindling, the sea ice thinning, and the erosion of islands." This weaving together of the personal, the sentimental, the environmental, and the trivial gives Smith's unassuming first novel surprising emotional weight.

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