Friday, May 7, 2010

Review: The Queen of Palmyra

Summary: 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.

Minrose Gwin's
The Queen of Palmyra is an unforgettable evocation of a time and a place in America—a nuanced, gripping story of race and identity.-- Harper Perennial

Wow! THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA by Minrose Gwin actually blew me away. So much so that I'm not even sure where to start. I mean... I really liked the novel, but that doesn't seem to capture how much this story affected me. This book just tore my heart out -- over and over again. It was gut-wrenching and at times and difficult to read. Yet, I found that I couldn't put this book down. It is one powerful read!

When I picked up THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA, I was expecting one of those books that deals with the 1960s Mississippi and all of the changes that were occurring at that time. In fact, I was expecting it to be along the same lines as THE HELP. Of course, a lot of the racial issues and tension between the characters were reminiscent of THE HELP; however, I thought this novel was much darker, and as a result, it affected me more and caused me to really think.

This novel is not for the weak-hearted -- trust me on that. It deals with some very heavy issues like abuse and racial tension. Topics that need to be remembered but aren't always easy to handle. This novel shows that there weren't always happy endings for the people involved in these situations. Some passages in this book are difficult to read and I promise you can't help but be affected by this story. What I did find very interesting is how the author chose to write some of the abuse/violent scenes. The writing in some ways was very subtle, yet powerful; and I found myself re-reading many of them. Her presentation of these scenes was extremely effective!

I loved so many of the characters in this book, but Florence really struck a chord with me. I absolutely fell in love with her, and I'm so glad that this story was hers to tell. She was young girl (about my daughter's age) who was living in such a horrific situation (in so many ways.) On one hand, I questioned how naive she was and wondered how she didn't see what was going on right under her nose. And on the other hand, I couldn't believe what she had to deal with and how she managed to survive. Often times while reading this book, I'd think of my 10 year old daughter. She's that age where she is torn between being a little girl and wanting to be grown up. Like Florence, she surprises me with her maturity and strength, yet she is also incredibly naive on some topics.

One thing that definitely struck me as I read THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA was the author's writing style. I thought this novel was incredibly well-written -- I mean seriously good. Ms. Gwin's prose was strong and beautiful, and her descriptions of the time period seemed to be spot on. But what really stood out to me was how literary this book was. (I'll be honest, I was just expecting a good story with memorable characters.) I thought the author did a magnificent job of not only telling this story and developing the characters, but also in incorporating so much symbolism into the novel. I really found myself thinking about the characters and interpreting the underlying meanings of this book even when I wasn't reading it (and long after I finished it.)

I have no doubt that THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA would make a fantastic book club pick, and I'm predicting that it's going to be a popular one over the next year or so. I honestly believe that you can't help but be affected by this novel, and I'm guessing that it is also going to evoke a lot of strong emotions in readers. I think those two reasons alone are enough to make it a great pick; however, this novel also has many things to talk about. Some of the themes that your group might explore include racial relations, family dynamics, friendship, abuse, choices, the importance of teaching/learning, and hope. You can see all of the discussion questions here. In addition, there is a great deal of symbolism in this book especially as it relates to the various stories that the characters told. Your group definitely could take some time to not only analyze the characters but also all of the stories!

I feel as if I've only touched on many of the parts of this novel that are so worthy of discussion. Rather than writing on and on, I recommend that you just read THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA. It is a highly moving book that will manage to stay in your thoughts long after you finish the last page.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

16 comments:

brizmus said...

I'm about to start this book, but now I'm a bit scared. Sounds like it might absolutely tear me apart.

Amy said...

Wow, great review. I've been seeing a lot about this book. You've really made me want to get it - the writing and style both sound incredible, and the subject matter sounds important. I need to go find the book now!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Huh. Well, you have sold me. I've read a number of reviews on this one, but holy cow girl, your pitch is compelling. One thing that surprises me, and it sounds like it surprised you too, was that the prose was literary. You don't find that very often in books like this. Nice review Julie!

bermudaonion said...

This book is in my "immediate" TBR pile on my nightstand and you've made me really excited to read it. I hope I can get to it soon! Fantastic review!

Karlie said...

Wow, sounds like a powerful read.

Marie said...

Great review. I'm reading this one right now and it's really as good as you say.

Jo-Jo said...

What a great review Julie. This sounds like a book that has a lot to offer on many different levels. I definitely need to add this to my list.

Jessie Sams said...

Great review! It makes me excited to add to my reading list for the summer...

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I really, really want to read this one too!

Beth F said...

You sold me too!! I've been interested in this one since I first started hearing about it, but I think I'd better go find me a copy!

Bookfool said...

Okay, I read "gut-wrenching" and "a powerful read" and thought that was good enough. I'm currently reading this one and enjoying it. Glad to know you enjoyed it so much!

Ti said...

This is one of my faves for 2010. I was so impressed with the author's writing style. I adored Flo. I swear, I wanted to feed her, bathe her and put her in my pocket. I felt so bad for her.

Allie said...

I have heard really good things about this book! I do think I'll have to get it.

Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy) said...

Just finished this tonight and will be linking to your review. Completely agree with EVERYTHING you said. It is such a powerful book, and the writing just ... well, it was spectacular and one of the best written novels I've ever read. It's going to be one of my favorites of the year, for sure.

MsSmithMCatEKU said...

This novel is so powerfully written, haunting, and evocative that I broke from the status quo (not unusual for me) and used it in an AP Lit class. Talk about literary merit! This book moves me in the same ways Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried does...the stylistic and rhetorical choices Gwin made, and their effects on the reader...her craft as a writer is breathtaking. Your review captures well why every person interested in, not just a good story, but good literature, should read this book.

MsSmithMCatEKU said...

This novel is so powerfully written, haunting, and evocative that I broke from the status quo (not unusual for me) and used it in an AP Lit class. Talk about literary merit! This book moves me in the same ways Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried does...the stylistic and rhetorical choices Gwin made, and their effects on the reader...her craft as a writer is breathtaking. Your review captures well why every person interested in, not just a good story, but good literature, should read this book.