Gregory Maguire – The Next Queen of Heaven
128. The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire (2010)
Length: 347 pages
Genre: Modern Fiction
Started: 13 October 2010
Finished: 18 October 2010
Where did it come from? From the publishers via TLC Book Tours.
Why do I have it? Gregory Maguire’s a little hit-or-miss for me, but I’d been interested in this one since reading the blurb on LT Early Reviewers last year, so when Trish offered me the chance to be part of the blog tour, I jumped at it.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 September 2010.
Welcome to my stop on the TLC blog tour for Gregory Maguire’s latest book, The Next Queen of Heaven! My review of the book is below, and if you’re interested in some different points of view, you can find the other stops on the tour at the tour page.
If the holidays
give you a mental breakdown…
you ain’t seen the half.
Summary: A few days before Halloween of 1999, Mrs. Leotina Scales sneaks into the basement of the Catholic church of Thebes, New York (to steal milk for the coffee of the Radical Radiant Pentecostals, next door). While down there, she gets bonked in the head by a statue of the virgin Mary, and begins speaking in tongues. This is too much for her foul-mouthed, dropout, troublemaker daughter Tabitha to deal with, especially since she’s got her own problems to deal with: useless brothers, absent fathers, and a boyfriend who’s avoiding her and who town gossip says is engaged to someone else. But things are not much brighter for the Catholics of Thebes… Jeremy Carr, the choir director of the church, is desperately trying to get his side project – a gay men’s chorus – into shape for an audition in New York City that might represent his last hope of breaking out of the orbit of his only ex-boyfriend (who is now happily married with kids). But the singing isn’t going so well either, since one of the members is HIV-positive and is deteriorating quickly, plus their options for rehearsal space have been reduced to the convent of the aging Sisters of the Sorrowful Mysteries. Christmas is coming, as is Y2K, but it’s unclear whether the citizens of Thebes are in for Yuletide miracles or millennial disasters.
Review: For starters, I’d like to give credit where credit’s due: bravo for Gregory Maguire for stretching his wings a bit. The Next Queen of Heaven is *very* different from his other books – no retold fairy tales or historical fiction settings here. I imagine that so radical of a departure from an author who is so well established in his own particular sub-genre can’t be easy, and I appreciate that Maguire was willing to take that leap.
I had a bit of a hard time telling whether or not he hit the mark, however. I’m not sure whether the fault was mine, the book’s marketing, or the novel itself (or some combination thereof, most likely), but I spent most of my time reading this book with a severe case of cognitive dissonance. The wacky small-town characters in mildly contrived situations, the religious elements, the just-before-Christmas setting, and the book-jacket blurb describing it as “frantic, funny, and farcical” were all making me expect Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel. Only, when I would sit down to read, what I got was The Stupidest Angel with all of the funny bits removed and replaced with sadness and depressive ennui. I kept waiting for the farcical part to start, and instead, I got a pastor with inappropriately lustful feelings towards a teen girl, and a gay man dying of AIDS. Whee.
I would write this all off as a case of mismatched expectations, but it seems like the book itself thinks it’s funnier than it is. There *are* some genuinely funny lines, and some scenes (particularly the ending) that actually feel like effective farce. The problem is, the book seems like it has to work too hard to achieve these bright bits, and they don’t do enough to dispel the bleakness that clings to the rest of the story. Which is not to say that the book is bad just because it’s bleak – not at all; I like a good bleak book now and again – but don’t sell yourself as a farce if that’s not really your strong suit, y’know?
And the thing is, The Next Queen of Heaven does a lot of things right. The parts where Maguire drops the farce angle and gives himself unabashedly to the pathos of the situation felt true and moving. The plot’s a little rambling and somewhat haphazard, but he makes the disparate pieces work together well, and even come together in the end. The character building was impressive – while I didn’t really like any of the characters much, they still felt like multidimensional individuals. Maguire’s setting is equally well-done; I’ve lived in upstate New York, and he captured it perfectly. The writing style is light but substantial, and is the one thing that immediately identifies this book as Maguire’s work. Finally, I thought he did a very nice job writing a book that deals so intimately with matters of religion – of multiple religions – without veering into either proselytizing or bashing.
So, in sum, this book had a number of good things about it, and the potential for even better things, but I felt like it couldn’t decide whether to be a comedy or a drama, tried to be both, and got stuck at an uncomfortable point in the middle. 3 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: If you like Gregory Maguire’s style, or serious books wrapped in wacky dressings, and can ignore the promises made by the cover copy, then you’ve got a pretty good shot of liking The Next Queen of Heaven more than I did.
Two abashed but undaunted faces caught in a half kiss courtesy of someone’s archaic black and white filmstock. Familiar as myth and just as distant.
Jeremy could hardly imagine he’d ever been capable of glowing like a Three Mile Island meltdown. Unsettling, the way the effect of an insubstantial kiss lingered through time, a harmonic just beyond the capacity of the ear to apprehend, but not of the memory to register and to twist, once again, between the poles pulling either grateful or sour. (p. 88)
Random: I was tickled pink when I realized that Maguire had set his story in a small town in upstate New York – and that he’d named it Thebes. He’s either lived in the area, or spent some time looking at maps, since many of the small towns in the area have Greco-Roman names, thanks to a surveyor’s clerk who had a fondness for Classical Studies.
First Line: To Tabitha’s remark that the town’s first speed-trap camera was totally unfair and kind of kinky, Mrs. Scales replied, after a prayerful silence, “Why don’t you think of it as the Eye of God?”
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 109: “Willem shifted his stance, flexing that marmoreal thigh under the chinos, closing the distance, and he kissed Charlotte on the lips.” – of or like marble.
- p. 110: “Willem had a distant streak of vetiver laced beneath his toasty smoker’s breath and the Saab-interior smell of his leather jacket.” – a grass of the family Poaceae, native to tropical Asia and also introduced into the tropics of both hemispheres, whose thick, fragrant roots contain an oil used in perfumes.
- p. 125: “It is a whole life to Jeremy, and more than adequately compensates for the froideur that his parents show.” – an attitude of haughty aloofness; cold superiority.
- p. 155: “Sean didn’t bother to argue with them, but a fermata of unsaid ripostes hung in the air among them all, until Sister Clothilde said, “Isn’t it nice to have a good look at some men?”” – the sustaining of a note, chord, or rest for a duration longer than the indicated time value, with the length of the extension at the performer’s discretion.
**All quotes come from an ARC edition and may not reflect the final published text.**
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