Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Queens of All the Earth

Queens of All the Earth by Hannah Sternberg (Baltimore: Bancroft, 2011) [reviewed from e-galley supplied by publisher via netgalley.com].

Inspired by Forster's Room with a View, Queens of All the Earth tells the story of a troubled young woman standing on the brink of her life and coming to terms with the disorder she'll have to face while on a trip to Europe. The novel quickly draws the reader into Olivia's perspective as she has a nervous breakdown on the day she is supposed to move into her dorm to begin her college career at Cornell. Her older sister Miranda tries to coax her out of her catatonic state to no avail, and even after months of rest and therapy, Olivia is still fragile. Miranda decides a change of scene in the form a trip to Barcelona will recharge Olivia. Traveling does not phase Olivia while it completely stresses Miranda who wants to control every detail. Olivia doesn't mind that their hostel accommodation is a large, co-ed room rather than the private room her sister reserved. When Miranda complains, loudly, a kind older gentleman and his broody teen son offer to switch. Miranda reluctantly agrees and does not like feeling obligated to these strangers. Olivia feels immediately drawn to the silent, broody son. Miranda befriends a bossy know-it-all named Lenny who confirms that the man and his son Greg are odd--apparently because the father is a minister and the son is quiet. Miranda also finds a sympathetic ear with Marc, who claims to be a future priest from Peru.

Sternberg's captivating descriptions of Barcelona and its impact on Olivia's mind unfold in metaphors of sunlight and physical discomfort, a somewhat surreal combination well suited to teen angst, even in the extreme form Olivia has. The poetry of e.e. cummings also infuses the novel, in the chapter titles and quotations in the text. The reasons for Olivia's breakdown become clearer as she contemplates her distant, academic mother, her older sister who is attempting to compensate for their mother, her recently dead father who left not long after she was born, and her own path as she has muscled her way toward a goal that might not even be hers without giving herself time to grow up. Her trip abroad ironically brings her closer to her true self and she is capable of making choices of her own rather than those others would push on her. Her relationship with Greg marks a new beginning for her, though Sternberg fails to develop it well and, in fact, the novel ends abruptly. Indeed, it ends so abruptly that I immediately reread Room with a View to see how it ended--much more satisfyingly, to be sure!

Overall, while Queens of All the Earth begins strongly with captivating, lyrical prose and a promising arc, it ultimately falls flat. It leaves too much undeveloped and shuts down right at the point where it should open up, especially given the portals it introduces in the first few chapters. Fine for ages 13 & up, it would make a good companion for a class studying Room with a View.

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