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A Wild Swan: And Other Tales, Michael Cunningham

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Hans Christian Andersen's The Wild Swans

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Rugby union. Motor racing. US sports. Rugby League. Suddenly, with a loud crackling sound, amid a flurry of sparkling wind, twelve studly young men, naked under their nettle coats, stood in the courtyard, with only a few stray white feathers wafting around them. Eleven of the young men soon married, had children, joined organizations, gave parties that thrilled everyone, right down to the mice in the walls.

Their thwarted stepmother, so raucously outnumbered, so unmotherly, retreated to a convent, which inspired the king to fabricate memories of abiding loyalty to his transfigured sons and helplessness before his harridan of a wife, a version the boys were more than willing to believe.


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  8. It was difficult for the twelfth brother, the swan-winged one. His father, his uncles and aunts, the various lords and ladies, were not pleased by the reminder of their brush with such sinister elements, or their unskeptical willingness to execute the princess as she worked to save her siblings. The king's court made jokes about the swan-winged prince, which his eleven flawlessly formed brothers took up readily, insisting they were meant only in fun. The young nieces and nephews, children of the eleven brothers, hid whenever the twelfth son entered a room, and giggled from behind the chaises and tapestries.

    His brothers' wives asked repeatedly that he do his best to remain calm at dinner he was prone to gesticulating with the wing while telling a joke, and had once flicked an entire haunch of venison against the opposite wall. The palace cats tended to snarl and slink away whenever he came near. Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world.

    The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could get only the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills princes don't , and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm.

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    Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray. He lived with his wing as another man might live with a dog adopted from the pound: sweet-tempered, but neurotic and untrainable. He loved his wing, helplessly. He also found it exasperating, adorable, irritating, wearying, heartbreaking. It embarrassed him, not only because he didn't manage to keep it cleaner, or because getting through doors and turnstiles never got less awkward, but because he failed to insist on it as an asset.

    Which wasn't all that hard to imagine. He could see himself selling himself as a compelling mutation, a young god, proud to the point of sexy arrogance of his anatomical deviation: ninety percent thriving muscled man-flesh and ten percent glorious blindingly white angel wing. Baby, these feathers are going to tickle you halfway to heaven, and this man-part is going to take you the rest of the way.

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    Where, he asked himself, was that version of him? What dearth of nerve rendered him, as year followed year, increasingly paunchy and slack-shouldered, a walking apology? Why was it beyond his capacities to get back into shape, to cop an attitude, to stroll insouciantly into clubs in a black lizardskin suit with one sleeve cut off?

    A Wild Swan: And Other Tales

    Yeah, right, sweetheart, it's a wing, I'm part angel, but trust me, the rest is pure devil. He couldn't seem to manage that. He might as well have tried to run a three-minute mile, or become a virtuoso on the violin. He's still around. He pays his rent one way or another. He takes his love where he can find it. In late middle age he's grown ironic, and cheerful in a toughened, seen-it-all way. He's become possessed of a world-weary wit.

    He's realized he can either descend into bitterness or become a wised-up holy fool. It's better, it's less mortifying, to be the guy who understands that the joke's on him, and is the first to laugh when the punch line lands. Most of his brothers back at the palace are on their second or third wives. No one wants to transform you into a beast, or In a market oversaturated by reworked fairy tales, his are the best. I had no idea Mr. Cunningham had it in him. He can't help but write movingly, even as he's setting fire to our most cherished childhood texts.

    The book is studded with unexpected moments of grace. Five out of five stars.