Queens of All the Earth
On the day Olivia Somerset is supposed to move into the freshman dorms at Cornell, she’s lying catatonic on her bed at home, a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet clutched in her hand. There’s nothing physically wrong with her, but she won’t move or eat or respond in anyway. The college plans are abandoned. As Olivia slowly emerges from her stupor, her older sister Miranda suggests a trip to Barcelona might be just the thing to re-introduce Olivia to the world, so the two of them head off to Spain. They spend a week in a hostel inhabited by a mixed cast of characters, each of whom touches the sisters in a different way.
This is a melancholy, meandering little novel. I don’t say little to be dismissive; it’s short (160 pages) and it’s concerned with a small period of time in the lives of just a few people. It’s an intimate novel. There are lots of lovely, lyrical descriptions of Barcelona. Sternberg creates a a sense of remove and an atmosphere that mirrors Olivia’s detachment from her surroundings. On occasion the transitions between description and action are a little confusing and I had to flip back and forth between pages to double-check that I hadn’t missed anything, but overall the writing is really nice.
In the conflicts between Olivia, who’s so desperately afraid to let go of her childhood fantasy worlds she loses her grip on reality, and Miranda, who has less than zero tolerance for imagination in her life, Sternberg captures the tension between romantic imagination and the exhaustion, confusion, and hundreds of tiny inconveniences of traveling abroad. The characters, and the interactions between them, are keenly observed, particularly in the case of Olivia, Miranda, and Miranda’s friend Lenny. Unfortunately, although Miranda’s domineering approach to the frustrations of travel feels very real, we don’t get to see any other side of her. She’s an unpleasant and unlikable character, and when her transformation comes at the end of the novel, it feels abrupt. If a softer, more playful side of her had been hinted at earlier, she would have been more likable and the transformation more believable.
Overall, a quiet, dreamy coming-of-age story recommended to older teens and young adults. I can see this one sitting on a hostel shelf somewhere itself and being read many, many times.
Review copy given to me by the publisher via NetGalley.