Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers is a story for daydreamers, for people who see a story where others do not. It is not epic and it won’t change your life, but it has affected me greatly. I love when a short, seemingly simple novel can surprise me. It has been a month since I’ve read Glaciers, but parts of the book still linger with me.
The story is one of longing: longing for a life in a faraway city, for the love of a co-worker to be requited, for a closet full of vintage dresses. The book takes place over the course of one day in twenty-something Isabel’s life, with glimpses of her past remembered in-between. The present is used as a point of reference for the past, and although the story moves back and forth, the prose reads smooth like running water.
Isabel is a vintage-hunting library employee who spends her days mending old books. She is a collector of ephemera. Her house is filled with objects from every decade; her closet resembles a rack from a thrift store. These are her treasures, and not just because of some aesthetic appreciation. She loves them like adopted children.
Isabel has a postcard of Amsterdam pinned to her bedroom wall. I have a similar postcard in my room. Narrow buildings are squeezed tight, lining a quiet canal, a ghost-like reflection of them on the water below. It is charming and beautiful and haunting to look at.
Unlike Isabel, I have been to Amsterdam. It was a short trip I made while studying abroad in Rome. My friends and I could only visit for three days. The trip felt like a teaser, like a short preview for a longer stay that will probably never come.
It may sound silly, but walking around those cities felt magical to me. The experience is similar to when Isabel finds the perfect vintage dress. Her heart leaps at the sight. It fits her perfectly. She imagines the person who owned the dress before her, what their life was like. You can’t help but let your mind wander while walking around a city like Amsterdam. It has been over a year since I have traveled to any of the cities on the postcards hanging on my bedroom wall. It almost feels like I never went. I’m Isabel, still hoping and dreaming.
I see myself in her. We are quiet people who dream of big cities, but have roots dug deep at home. We have boxes filled with old letters, jewelry handed down from great-grandmothers, old dog-eared books with certain passages underlined. All of these things we keep tell the stories of others, but they also manage to tell our own.
There is a brief moment in the book when Isabel remembers discovering in an old encyclopedia that spiders have book lungs, which fold in and out over themselves like pages. She was sad to discover that humans do not. “It made complete sense to her. This way breath, this way life: through here.” It makes sense to me, too.