Behind the Mirror

I just finished reading Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire (William Morrow, 2003), and I was pleasantly surprised by the book’s subtlety and style.

Maguire situates the Snow White story, which I don’t particularly enjoy, in the world of Lucrezia Borgia in Renaissance Italy. In doing so, he changes the connotation of the question, “Who is the fairest of them all?” to reflect its political and ethical shades.

What I especially appreciate is that he makes this a story about not only familial loyalty and its liberating and imprisoning effects, but also about a human desire for absolution, and about the power of the imagination to form the self, to ensnare, to paralyze, and to make things of beauty that, although they cannot last, can lead to change.

This is one of my favorite passages:

   Out of our need we patronize our artists, we flirt with our poets, we petition our architects: Give us your lusty colorful world. Signal to us a state of being more richly steeped in purpose and satisfaction than our own.
Thanks to our artists, we pretend well, living under canopies of painted clouds and painted gods, in halls of marble floors across which the sung Masses paint hope in deep impasti of echo. We make of the hollow world a fuller, messier, prettier place, but all our inventions can’t create the one thing we require: to deserve any fond attention we might accidentally receive, to receive any fond attention we don’t in the course of things deserve. We are never enough to ourselves because we can never be enough to another. Any one of us walks into any room and reminds its occupant that we are not the one they most want to see. We are never the one. We are never enough.
The holy find this some mincing proof of God. Damn them.

If it is a human instinct to use another human as a mirror, an object that we expect to satisfy our unfulfilled longings, it is equally common to expect literature or other forms of art to do the same. Maguire’s novel invites readers to see such mirrors in terms of both the painstakingly polished glass and the poisonous quicksilver on which their reflections depend.


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