Published April 2010 by Harper Perennial
Description from the publisher:
“I need you to understand how ordinary it all was. . . .”
In the turbulent southern summer of 1963, Millwood’s white population steers clear of “Shake Rag,” the black section of town. Young Florence Forrest is one of the few who crosses the line. The daughter of a burial insurance salesman with dark secrets and the town’s “cake lady,” whose backcountry bootleg runs lead further and further away from a brutal marriage, Florence attaches herself to her grandparents’ longtime maid, Zenie Johnson. Named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Zenie treats the unwanted girl as just another chore, while telling her stories of the legendary queen’s courage and cunning.
The more time Florence spends in Shake Rag, the more she recognizes how completely race divides her town, and her story, far from ordinary, bears witness to the truth and brutality of her times—a truth brought to a shattering conclusion when Zenie’s vibrant college-student niece, Eva Greene, arrives that fateful Mississippi summer.
Maybe it was a case of high expectations from the multitude of rave reviews I’ve seen recently. Or maybe not. I committed to read and review Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra as part of a blog tour hosted by TLC Book Tours, and I was excited about it. But I just couldn’t get through it.
Like, it took me three days to read fifty pages.
Whereas I ordinarily put down books I’m not clicking with after 50-100 pages, I’d made a commitment to this one, and I’m not the kind of lady who backs out of those commitments lightly. I knew by page 100 that I wasn’t going to love The Queen of Palmyra, but I figured I would finish it and write an honest, if critical, review. I tried, dear readers, and I couldn’t do it. I made it about halfway through.
And it’s not that this isn’t an interesting book. It is. Florence Forrest is an engaging character, and she’s in one heck of a pickle with her alcoholic mother and racist father and generally shitty situation in which her parents neglect her and she finds herself identifying more with Zenie’s family and then not understanding why it’s a problem when, upon seeing herself in makeup designed for African-American skin, she exclaims, “I’m colored…I look colored!”
I felt for Florence and shuddered at the VERY BAD THINGS that happened and the EVEN WORSE THINGS that were looming in the distance. I had this feeling that her character was going to develop well. Gwin puts Florence in situations that perfectly illustrate the ways in which she does not understand the rules and boundaries that govern race relations, and she makes Florence’s plight as a neglected child very sympathetic. For instance, Florence recalls riding in the car with another girl’s mother, who called Florence “precious cargo” and threw her arm out to protect the girls whenever they took a turn (in the days before seatbelts):
To think of myself as a child, and precious cargo to boot, made me glow inside. Folks in my family were always acting like I was grown up or the wallpaper, one of the two and sometimes both at once.
That just says it.
But I think there are two kinds of readers: those for whom story is most important, and those for whom writing is most important. I am the latter. For me, good writing can make just about any story or topic interesting. The flip side of that is that if the writing isn’t solid, even a compelling story can’t save it for me. And there were things about the writing that I couldn’t get past.
First, the similes. Minrose Gwin loves her similes. And sometimes they are quite lovely, as when Florence describes her father, who has just received a late-night call to one of his mysterious meetings and is preparing to walk out the door, by saying “he looked like a bell waiting to be rung.” That’s quite evocative, yes? The problem is that there is a simile for EVERYTHING. Seriously. No description goes unvarnished. It got to a point where I felt like saying, “Don’t tell me what the thing/person/place/scene looks LIKE, just tell me WHAT IT IS.” I appreciate beautiful descriptions, and many of Gwin’s are surprisingly elegant, but there are too many.
Next, the ever-changing tense. Gwin switches Florence’s narration from present- to past-tense frequently. Often within the same paragraph. When a book is written primarily in past tense, a move into present tense for selected scenes can add a sense of immediacy and urgency that engages the reader and gives the scene added impact. The Queen of Palmyra is written primarily in present-tense—though Florence indicates at times that she is writing as an adult (but never, at least in the first half of the books, indicates how far removed from childhood she is) about her young life—and moves into past tense seemingly without reason. Rather than adding oomph, the frequent changes in tense are distracting and made it more difficult for me to get a fix on what, exactly, Florence’s perspective is. She obviously isn’t writing the story while it happens when she is eleven years old, but how much older is she?
Maybe these questions are answered in the second half of the book, but I expect to have some idea of where the narrator is coming from sooner than that.
I also felt that the writing was too self-conscious and too determined to be SOUTHERN FICTION with the requisite elements of young white girl, older black maid, a racist parent, the nasty secret bathroom out in the yard, and the gritty and potentially unnecessary dark parts. I can see that The Queen of Palmyra has strong bones and good potential, but for me, it didn’t deliver, and the irksome features in the writing were too distracting for me to continue with the story and find out what happens to Florence.
I didn’t hate what I read of The Queen of Palmyra, but it was nowhere near the love I hoped for.