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Book review

‘A Wild Swan: And Other Tales’ by Michael Cunningham

snow white / getty images; anvil from shutterstock; globe staff photo illustration

Content with invoking a single fairy tale in his previous novel, “The Snow Queen,” Michael Cunningham rewrites a batch of them in his new book, to entertaining and ultimately moving effect. “A Wild Swan” opens with the sardonic declaration that “[m]ost of us are safe” from the malevolence of mean fairies and evil stepmothers. “If your beauty doesn’t trouble the constellations, nobody’s going to cast a spell on you,” Cunningham notes. Lest we feel unduly reassured, he adds a kicker: “Most of us can be counted on to manage our own undoings.”

Indeed, several of Cunningham’s most interesting revisions give fairy-tale villains decidedly human back stories. The witch from “Hansel and Gretel” is the veteran of “a career of harshly jovial sluttishness,” happy to escape the bleak domesticity of her married friends. Stunned to find herself lame and no longer desired at age 70, she’s forced by skyrocketing village rents to relocate to a gingerbread house in the forest.

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Rumpelstiltskin wants desperately to be a father, but, “go ahead. Apply to adopt an infant as a two-hundred-year-old gnome.” He’d be a much better dad than that odious king who would have executed the miller’s daughter if Rumpelstiltskin hadn’t spun her straw into gold.

Tart humor has always been the antidote to Cunningham’s occasional over-investment in his gorgeous prose, and his wicked wit is particularly welcome when directed at those who usually get off scot-free in fairy tales. The king who passively lets his new queen turn her 12 stepsons into swans and very nearly burn their sister at the stake “fabricate[s] memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife.”

Beauty’s father “discover[s] more and various ways to blame his daughter” for allowing the Beast to usurp his place in her life — and in fact she “preferred whatever the Beast might do to another day of tending the geese.”

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Daily life is dreary, and the alternatives come with drawbacks generally subsumed in “happily ever after” — but not in Cunningham’s retellings. Princes prove to be not so charming. The wincingly funny “Poisoned” shows Snow White humoring her husband in a creepy night-time game that has her climbing back into the glass coffin and “going into the zone” so he can lower the lid and revisit the time “when I was perfect . . . pure possibility.” After the Beast is restored to princely human form by Beauty’s promise to marry him, he shows her “a lascivious, bestial smile . . . [t]he eyes remain feral.”

These nasty twists are mostly amusing, bracing correctives to our hopes for magical solutions to life’s inevitable difficulties. “Jacked,” the collection’s funniest tale, shows a paradigmatic slacker thoroughly enjoying the thoroughly undeserved rewards he gains by thieving. Yet it closes with a poignant image of the golden harp longing for the days when “it lived on a cloud and played music too beautiful for anyone but the giant to hear.” The mood darkens further in reworkings of “Rapunzel” and “The Monkey’s Paw” (not technically a fairy tale, but a 1902 short story), which portray the grim physical consequences of wishes gone wrong.

Cunningham understands that the enduring appeal of fairy tales rests on the eternal human feelings and experiences they embody: growing up, growing old, love, jealousy, fear. He travels farthest from fairy-tale origins while plumbing most fully their emotional depths in the touching stories “Steadfast: Tin,” based on a Hans Christian Anderson tale, and “Ever/After,” which appears to be an original creation. Both explore unlikely marriages between very different people attracted by each other’s imperfections as much as anything else. Cunningham sensitively traces the evolution of long-term relationships: familiar traits that slowly become infuriating, contentment that can morph into boredom, estrangements followed by reconciliations, the scars that make love more profound.

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Beginning in these two stories where most fairy tales end, Cunningham nonetheless echoes their fantastical atmosphere by recognizing how mysterious love is and capturing its complex manifestations in language that has a whiff of the unearthly. The collection’s more caustic stories reveal that happy endings aren’t necessarily what they’re cracked up to be. “Steadfast: Tin” and “Ever/After” demonstrate that truly happy endings span decades and include loss, sorrow, rage, and regret alongside growth, devotion, and continuity. And that’s no fairy tale.

A WILD SWAN: And Other Tales

By Michael Cunningham

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 144 pp., $23


Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast.