Past tense is as important as present tense in Anita Shreve's delicate story of growing emotional and physical maturity, glimpsed and gained through two painful years of memories and hope.

As Light on Snow opens, 12-year-old Nicky Dillon (telling the story 22 years later) doesn't realize the unreality of the life she and her father are living after the traumatic loss of her mother and baby sister in a car wreck. After the accident, the grieving survivors moved to another state and began a shadowy existence, separating themselves from all the people and habits that marked their former life. All that changes when, shortly before Christmas, Nicky and her father discover a newborn baby girl left in the snowy woods to die. The police seem to take a quizzical view of their discovery (could the secretive Robert Dillon be the baby's father?), which opens up the Dillons' world to vulnerability and change. When a hurting stranger shows up at their door a few days later, Nicky finds herself yearning for connections that promise a return to normal family life once again.

Anita Shreve has written 10 other well-received novels, each one in a deceptively simple style that teases human insights out of straightforward prose. She has a knack for the fortunate metaphor (Robert's grief is "a hard nut within his chest"; Nicky's grandmother is " a good person to hug because her body fills up all the empty spaces").

Two years of unresolved sadness and anger at fate become part of a useful past, as Shreve details the unwilling, importunate surrender of anguish by Nicky and her father. In return they receive an uncertain but hopeful grasp on the possibilities of Christmases yet-to-come. At long last, the future tense becomes possible once again. Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland

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