In one of the most elegantly written and carefully constructed love stories in recent memory, Nicholas Shakespeare introduces Peter Hithersay, who, on his sixteenth birthday, learns that "Daddy" is not his father. In Leipzig, East Germany, for a vocal competition, his mother had met and loved his biological father very briefly, only to see him arrested, and taken away forever. Curious about Germany, Peter spends his gap year in Hamburg and applies for and is accepted to its medical school, where he lives for the next six years. Eventually, Peter makes a trip to Leipzig, where he, now twenty-two, falls passionately in love with a young East German, whose Icelandic nickname, "Snjolaug," sounds to him like "Snowleg." When he has to leave, he is unable to forget her.
Peter's search for Snowleg, and secondarily, for his father, is told through flashbacks and memories, and the nature of their relationship unfolds in detail. The role of the secret police in their separation and the conflicts between the original ideal of communism and its later implementation are shown through Uwe and Hesse, two secret policemen, who appear in the prologue and in the conclusion and provide fresh perspective on the action, elevating this novel above the typical love story.
The vibrancy of Shakespeare's prose makes every page of this novel a delight to read. Filled with irony and, often, humor, the dialogue comes alive. Unforgettable descriptions, especially of the darkness, cold, and soot in Leipzig, reveal feelings as well as convey information. To Peter, listening to the radio, a love song "had red eyes and ran furtively across his mind...It was a rat dressed up as a promise." Repeating motifs--a van with a fish painted on it, a dying deer, the story of Sir Bedevere, a fur coat, and the bones of a muskrat--echo throughout the novel and connect scenes symbolically. Like most romances, the story relies on coincidence and fortuitous accident, but Shakespeare's writing is so strong and the story is so exciting that even the most jaded reader will willingly accept the implausibilities. Mary Whipple