Why I didn’t finish THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA

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.

Hey, FTC: I received a galley of this book from the publisher.

24 Responses

  1. Sorry this one was not as good as you hoped for. I was wondering about this one. Thanks for your honest review.

  2. There is nothing that will leave me colder than the overuse of similes. To me, that is reason enough to stop reading anything. It always feels like the author just got out of their “similes and me” class and are practicing. Ugh.

    Still I was surprised to read this review. Others have absolutely bubbled over with love for this book. I guess that is the beauty of opinions!!!

  3. That is unfortunate, but valid. I keep seeing reviews of this book that are full of gushing, but I think the excessive similes and switching of tenses would be a little bit annoying as well. I still want to try this out at some point, but I might wait.

  4. I absolutely understand what your saying. However, I have pressed on and am into Part 3. I keep hoping that it will get better. The author had potential as to what she could have done with the character of Florence but I feel like she’s let us down.

  5. I’ve been excited about this book too and now I’m wondering what all the gushing is about. I don’t like overly descriptive language or overuse of similes, so this might not be the book for me either.

  6. I wasn’t one of the gushers, but I did make it all the way through. I agree, the tense shifts were awkward, and it’s not until way too late that we find out when our narrrator is speaking from. I’ve read books that I’ve wanted to throw against a wall because of horrible, ubiquitous similes, but I guess these ones didn’t bother me on that level.

    Regardless, sorry it didn’t get better for you.

  7. It definitely does become clearer near the end how far from the events Florence is as she’s narrating, but I actually liked the vagueness better. When the majority of a book takes place in a certain time period, I don’t like knowing what happens years later.

    It’s been really interesting to read all the reviews, both gushing and not so gushing. Obviously, here at harper perennial we want all reviews to be amazing, but I think it’s good to get another perspective, because not every book is for every person. Maybe there’s someone out there who just read this review and went “similes? i LOVE similes!”

    • Exactly, Erica, and that’s why I think it’s important to write review/discussions like this—because you never know what’s going to engage a reader. For almost every negative review I’ve ever written, I’ve gotten at least one comment where someone says something like “Those things you described that you don’t like? I love those. I think I’ll check this out.” No press is bad press, right? And the fact that this isn’t a perfect book makes it even better for discussion. I would still recommend it as a book club selection for that reason.

      • I totally agree and have had the same thing happen. With one of the negative reviews I’ve written, a majority of the commenters said it sounded interested and added it to their wish lists. To each his own.

        –Anna

  8. I was one of the gushers, I guess. I really enjoyed this book. And I liked the writing a lot. I loved the similes and I loved the way she stuck to them and other themes. “Precious cargo” comes up over and over and those two words are enough to remind you what that means to Florence.

    But I get why you may have had problems with it. I think I did trip over the tenses a little. And I can see how the Southern Lit genre may get old if everyone throws in the same elements. Fortunately, I haven’t read too much of it so I’m still in love.

    Thanks for your review. I always like hearing why people didn’t care for books that I did and vice versa.

    Or was this just an attempt to write a negative review? ;)

  9. I think fresh, original similes are massively hit-or-miss, and some authors do seem to be ODing on them. I felt sort of this same way (but it distracted and bothered me less) about Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. When her similes were on, damn, they were on; but when they weren’t, they were really bad.

  10. rough.

    advance copy/galley or not, i dont put up with reading a book that i am not into. too many other books to read.

    good for you, knowing your limits and why.
    a fine review all the same considering.

  11. Thanks for this review. It makes me feel better about the books that I felt I wanted to love, but just couldn’t get through it for one reason or another. Also, certain styles of writing can resonate with some, but not others.

  12. I think it’s good to learn that you don’t have to finish a book just cuz. It says a lot when you can’t make it through.

  13. This morning I had to write a review for a book that I didn’t finish. I didn’t know what to do. Until today I’ve never a DNF post. I’m glad you wrote this post. Reading this was the push I needed to write my own DNF post.

  14. It’s unfortunate that the book you happened to not like was one you had agreed to review. However, I’m glad to know that other people give up rather than “push through”. I am a huge believer in reading for pleasure and nothing else! As a person with a degree in English, I can readily attest to the fact that there is a lot of bad writing in the world — and who has time for that? Not me! I spent years attempting to get through Moby Dick and some other such terrible pieces of “literature” and won’t be doing it again anytime soon. So you have a simile thing. It’s okay! I have a present tense thing. (It just sounds awkward… We don’t speak like that. I mean, who ever says, “He sits on the back porch”?) Thanks for your always-honest commentary!

  15. I’ve read some great reviews of this book, but I tend to not love Southern fiction. I love great fiction that happens to be Southern, but I tend to stay away from the rest. I’m also one who enjoys writing. Life is too short to read books you don’t love.

  16. I haven’t read this book but I SO appreciate your frank critique. There are so many mediocre and downright bad books getting published and read, and while it’s all so subjective, it’s good to hear the bad reviews, too. Some reviews are simply too polite.

  17. I’m not a literary fiction girl (as you well know) so I generally skim reviews of that genre but I found myself reading this one because I was more interested to hear what didn’t work for you. Well said and thoughtfully done!

  18. […] I started the week with a piece about my recent streak of rave reviews, and I gave warning that my forthcoming reviews of The Singer’s Gun and Day for Night will both be gushy as well. Then my week got busy, and I didn’t get around to reviewing those two (look for them this week because at this point, it’s review it before BEA or bust!), but I DID end up being accidentally ironic by then writing a negative review of a book many authors have loved: Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra. […]

  19. I just started this yesterday and am only on page 64 now. It’s a VERY slow read for me – lots of overly descriptive language. I’m not sure if I’ll make it through, but I’m hoping it starts to get better. Good to know others had the same thoughts I’m having!!

  20. I’m sorry this book didn’t work out for you. I have a feeling that the problems you experienced with the writing might make me dislike the book as well. I was curious because of all the raving reviews it has gotten lately, but I think I’ll put buying this book off for a while.

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