When home restorer Nora Hamilton awakens late and a little groggy one snowy winter morning, finding her husband Brendan neither beside her in bed nor in any of his usual morning places—in the shower, in the kitchen making coffee—she senses something’s wrong. “With icy hands, I opened the door to the back stairs, whose walls I was presently laboring over to make perfect for Brendan,” Jenny Milchman writes in her debut mystery, Cover of Snow. “I took in the faded wallpaper I’d only just reached after months of careful scraping. Perhaps I didn’t have enough momentum, but I slipped, solidly whacking both knees as I went down. Crouching there, gritting my teeth against the smarting pain, I looked up toward the top of the flight. Brendan was above me suspended from a thick hank of rope.”
Once the post-death events are over and Nora’s family leaves her alone, she begins asking questions that she hopes will help her unravel the facts of her husband’s suicide. Why did he do it? Why wasn’t there any warning? Though they’d had a good marriage, Nora discovers what most people who have been married for any length of time ultimately realize: though she loved her husband, she didn’t really know him, not really—not his most private pain, not the secrets of his childhood.
As she searches her late husband’s past and begins to engage his colleagues at the police department in their small town in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, Nora is treated to patronizing recommendations to avoid looking for answers where none could possibly exist, to move on with her own life. But after she meets a newspaper reporter whose home she has been commissioned to restore, the two realize that they could share information to help one another in their respective pursuits of the truth. That’s when the anonymous threats begin, and Nora’s entire life, including relationships she thought she understood perfectly, turns dark and forbidding.
From the beginning, Cover of Snow is memorable and affecting, and it avoids all signs of banality, that great danger for genre fiction in general and new authors in particular. Milchman’s characters feel three-dimensional, like people we’ve met or hope never to meet, as the case may be. There is the shotgun-toting chief of police, who sometimes seems capable of deep and abiding love and other times has the demeanor of a sociopath. And there is Brendan’s high-school girlfriend, whom the reader never meets but whose letters Nora discovers, revealing a refreshing and open spirit more emotionally mature than perhaps any other character in the book.
And there is the icy and calculating mother-in-law, who blames Nora for the tragedy. “‘Why do you think a man kills himself, Nora?’ she asked, each word unflinchingly delivered, a jab in my ribs. ‘What reason do you imagine people will come up with? … Unhappy men commit suicide, Nora. And what makes a man unhappy—especially one who is widely known to love his job?’ She spoke quickly now, words gathering momentum like a train. ‘Why, trouble at home, of course. With his marriage. His wife.’”
Milchman teaches writing for the New York Writers Workshop and last year founded Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which gained attention both domestically and internationally and made her a friend to bookstores everywhere. Though Cover of Snow is her first published novel, it is in fact the eighth Milchman has written, and the eleven years she spent honing her skills are evident in this intricately woven thriller, whose layers are deep and plenty and whose turns are a welcome surprise, even for prolific readers of mysteries.
Jenny Milchman will discuss Cover of Snow on February 16 at 2 p.m. at The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.