Queens of All the Earth: Discovering the Hidden Power of the Millennial Woman
PJM contributor Hannah Sternberg's debut novel reveals how generations shape one another.
February 4, 2012 - 12:22 am
Olivia Somerset does not join her peers at Cornell as students flood the campus in the fall. The opportunity to take the next step toward adulthood unleashed a nervous breakdown. For weeks she lies bedridden. Eventually her older sister Miranda and their feminist anthropology professor mother coax Olivia back into the real world. But she remains psychologically broken.
Miranda has the solution: she books a room at a hostel in Barcelona for two. An opportunity to take in the unique architecture and cuisine would help Olivia “find herself” and emerge from her shell. And Big Sister would be along to protect her and guide her from site to site. By the time the trip was over she’d be more than ready to start up again at college, as was expected of her.
Once the travelers arrive in Spain, the plan begins to unwind. Miranda reserved a private room for two but a mix-up drops them into a crowded group room. Then Mr. Brown and his teenage son Greg introduce themselves and volunteer to switch with them.
While the gesture is appreciated, the Browns are met with suspicion by cynical Big Sister Miranda. What kind of person would be so friendly and altruistic? They must be planning something. Also staying at the hostel is a hard-drinking travel writer named Lenny (a woman with the real name Eleanor) who fuels the rejection of the vacationing minister and his brooding son.
Meanwhile, Olivia listens to the warnings from these older women but remains intrigued by Greg… a potential kindred spirit? Somewhat scarred and discouraged but eager to reveal the person inside to someone who cares enough to listen?
PJ Lifestyle contributor Hannah Sternberg’s debut novel Queens of All the Earth (the title comes from the E. E. Cummings poem “Orientale”) reinvents E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Like the classic modernist novel, nothing really “happens” over the course of Hannah’s story. A few people meet while traveling overseas and they interact. All the action is on the internal level, as characters wrestle with their self-doubt, process their conflicting emotions, and struggle to chart a new path forward. And does it ever make for a gripping read.
I’ve already praised Hannah for her novel’s gorgeous prose. On the aesthetic and entertainment levels the novel is a success. (I finished it in only a few sittings.) So today I want to highlight some of the thematic content in Queens of all the Earth and invite readers to consider Hannah’s work in the context of the literary future: now is about the time when Generation Y (those of us under 30, born in 1982 and after) are beginning to articulate our own visions of how we perceive the world and what we will contribute.
In Queens of all the Earth two women have most shaped the Millennial Olivia: her Generation X older sister Miranda and their Baby Boomer mother, the career-oriented, second-wave feminist academic.
From her Boomer mother, Olivia inherits the expectation that she will develop herself into an independent woman with a satisfying, meaningful job apart from homemaking. From her X-er Big Sister (and their hipster traveling friend Lenny) she knows the dangers of the male liberated by the sexual revolution. Beware of men: we will crush your heart and lie to you. (In their most concentrated, unforgiving form, these sentiments manifest in films like Bridesmaids which reject the possibility of men and women finding happiness together in marriage.)
Throughout their lives these have been the two dominant female influences on the women of Generation Y: Boomer moms who raised their daughters to achieve and Xer big sisters who warned them about the lies teenage boys tell to make you feel loved and the regret and self-loathing that come afterward.