I absolutely adored this novel. Set in 1920s Alaska, it follows the story of Mabel and Jack, a middle aged couple who uprooted their lives and moved to Alaska a year before. Used to farming in the continental United States, the two weren't quite prepared for the hardships they would face, and have also lost the ability to communicate with each other. Mabel pictured them working together, sharing their triumphs and losses, while Jack still feels the need to protect Mabel and shield her from the worst of it. Mabel and Jack married later in life, and Mabel was from a more well-to-do background, hence Jack's need to prove himself worthy. Though both wanted children, the one pregnancy they had ended early with a stillborn child. As a result, Mabel felt that Alaska would be the answer for them - she wanted to start over, fresh, away from the well meaning pity and sympathy of the family. However, things are not going as well as Mabel had hoped.
One night, however, it snows, and Mabel and Jack end up having an odd night of fun, rather out of character for both, and they build a snow girl together. The next morning, the two of them find their snow girl destroyed but both start seeing glimpses of an actual girl in the woods. The girl hunts with a fox, seems completely untouched by the cold, and survives in the wilderness. Slowly, the girl and the couple begin to build a relationship with each other. Mabel, remembering an old Russian fairy tale, believes that Faina, the name the girl eventually gives them, is that snow girl come to live. Certainly, the girl's timing coincides with that idea as she leaves with the snow and winter and comes back again after first snowfall. Jack is more practical and believes Faina is a real girl, but either way, her presence brings a certain amount of anticipation and joy to their lives. Mabel rediscovers her passion for drawing, and finally writes home to the family she left behind.
At the same time, due to Jack's visits to town, he becomes friendly with a local family, and despite Mabel's initial wish to avoid others, the two families begin to spend time with each other. Esther and George have already established themselves in Alaska, and are more than willing to share advice, resources and their time to help their neighbors during hardship. The harsh climate and gorgeous scenery of Alaska are beautifully described, practically serving as a character, and the whole novel has a bit of an other world feel to it. While Ivey seems to answer the question regarding whether Faina is a snow girl or a real girl, she leaves it open enough that there is room for interpretation and the answer is not completely straightforward. The development of the relationship between Jack and Mabel is well done, and seems very realistic, since it has its up and downs even after things begin to improve for them. While the novel has its touches of magic realism, it reads as a very realistic exploration of relationships, not just of humans with each other, but also with nature and their environment. Given the setting, it really seems like the perfect book to read during the winter with a cup of hot chocolate as the characters all slowly draw the reader in. In fact, simply writing about the novel makes me want to read it again, or pick up a Jack London novel.