The Ice Chorus by Sarah Stonich is the picturesque, perceptive and contemporary tale of Liselle (Lise) Dupre, an amateur documentary filmmaker from Toronto who is torn between the men in her life: her self-absorbed, archaeologist husband Stephen, 17-year-old son Adam, once womanizing and now dead father Hart, and the lover she met on a Mexican vacation – Welsh painter Charles Lowan – who makes her feel like she has never felt before.
Exquisitely written with as much consideration of light and fluidity as the loving and precise brushstrokes of the story’s artist, Stonich reinforces the fact that nothing ever turns out the way we think it will. Their mature and deeply romantic love story is recalled in vivid, powerful flashbacks in which we feel Lise’s agony every bit as her ecstasy and are completely empathetic to her dilemma.
Author Nuala O’Faolain declared that, “Any woman who ever had her heart cracked open by a man should read The Ice Chorus.” And she’s right. I was hauntingly reminded of my most meaningful, romantic epiphany that occurred in Ireland seven years ago, and was attracted to the book’s synopsis for this reason.
After an intense affair with Charlie while on holiday in the Yucatán, Lise uncovers the real reason why she has avoided intimacy and allowed her marriage to simply happen to her. She had consented to a life that didn’t make her happy and only in Charlie’s arms did she discover the colours of love and how it feels to be genuinely understood.
“Sitting back, she framed Charlie in half shade, her gaze climbing to the hard line of his jaw, his deep temple and too-broad forehead. He would be considered plain by most.
“You choose what you see, I suppose.”
He considered her a long moment before touching her arm. “You should, you know.”
The nails of his fingers were rimmed in ochre, the same colour pressed into the fabric of his shirt. The weight of them on her skin was light, acute.
“I should what?”
“Do what that journalist suggested. Make a film of yourself.”
When he pulled his hand away, she felt marked.
She froze. No one had called her that for a very long time. It took a moment for her to reply without her voice cracking. “Yes?”
Lise struggles with how to find the right time to end her marriage to Stephen, realizing that she’s bound to lose Adam in the split. Confiding in no one but her best friend Leonard, who is gay, Lise is soon forced to make a decision when Charlie’s art is exhibited in Toronto and everyone in the gallery is witness to seven remarkably intimate portraits of his “Elle”.
After many months of angst-ridden contemplation, Lise decides to start over again in rural Ireland where she builds her new life and waits for Charlie’s return. It is here that the novel begins.
While in Eire, Lise gradually forms a new familial bond with Remy (the local shanachie and hardware store owner) & Margaret Conner (an elegant cake maker with a deep, dark secret) and their prickly granddaughter Siobhan, characters that are as richly envisioned and fulfilled as the Irish seascape in Lowan’s painting; the catalyst for Lise’s decision. She rents a plain house in a remote village near the sea and embarks on a new journey of her own design. Lise slowly integrates into the lives of the villagers, who warm to her when she films them revealing how they met the love of their lives, and in the process exposes herself.
Sarah Stonich authentically depicts bucolic Ireland while smoothly weaving between the past and present and creates a “subtle, lovely evocation of the transforming power of love, forgiveness, midlife renewal and the power of art to transform life.” Her prose reminds me of the work of Maggie O’Farrell, Candida Clark and Lisa Carey, all of whom I love, and as she credits some of my favourite Irish writers (Edna O’Brien, Jamie O’Neill, Colum McCann) with inspiring her, I would not hesitate to read more of Stonich’s books.
The only complaint I have about The Ice Chorus is the way in which Stonich described Charlie’s return to Ireland which was all too brief and evasive for my liking. However, it did have a satisfying, albeit contemplative ending and was the perfect book to read as the year comes to an end and I reflect on my own journey of love and memory.