Glaciers by Alexis Smith is a Tin House book and NPR recommendation. Structured as a day in the life of, it begins and ends in almost the same way, a young woman thinking of the past as tangible things that have all slipped through her fingers. Sounds like a downer, but it’s not.
Isabel is a 20-something in Portland, Oregon who works in a small library office repairing books. She also has a thing for second hand stores, the history of mismatched tea cups and the stories behind old postcards and clothing. She wakes up thinking of Amsterdam and a message scrawled on the back of an old postcard addressed to someone named L:
You are all I see when I open or close a book.
At work, Isabel nurses a major crush on a techie army vet they call Spoke. You want things to happen between them even though it seems like a long shot. That’s because Smith writes of love the way she writes of long gone strangers, like it all matters. The scenes between the two of them are written in the details of gestures and things unsaid.
Isabel arrives at work early to get her Spoke fix in the few quiet moments they have alone together reading the paper before others show. The first indicator that this day will not be like others comes when she decides to invite him to a party that night.
On her lunch break, she tries on a dress from the 60s with an umbrella print. The lady at the shop, who buys most of her clothes form estate sales, tells Isabel of the things people treasure:
I’ve seen enough old ladies’ closets to know what we really hold on to. Not the till-death-do-us-part dresses, It’s those first lovely dresses: the slow dance dresses, the good-night-kiss dresses. It’s those first pangs we hold on to.
Most of the scenes have the feel of a vignette, a picture on a postcard or a stranger’s old photograph. Isabel stores her own memories in other people’s things, and whether that distorts them a bit doesn’t really matter. What remains are the stories we cannot keep to ourselves, and the ones we make up bcause we cannot help ourselves.
The book itself has the size and feel of a postcard. The cover would clearly appeal more to women, but I think men would like this one, too. The tone is somber, sentimental in places, but more curious than emotional. It takes place in fall and the whole thing has the feel of an ending so it’s a perfect read for a cool solitary day.