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.
This set of mentors has produced a generation of women which outperforms their male counterparts — more women than men enroll in and graduate from college.
But for all the energy and attention poured into them, the women of my generation still have recurring problems. In Queens of All the Earth, Olivia has grown up fatherless. Here’s a passage from page 85:
She’d once looked to her sister and her mother, but been afraid the water would have beaded and rolled right off their backs, so she’d saved it for her books and private thoughts. She often imagined that, if she’d had a chance to meet and get to know her father, she could have given a large portion of her affection to him, and when she’d heard he was dead, it was like the passing of an opportunity more than a person.
But this was different. She sensed she had connected with someone who would receive her downpour with joy, dance in it, and invite her to as well.
Most of the women I’ve known and loved in my life have been some variation of the phenomenon Hannah describes in Olivia. Maybe their parents divorced. Maybe their father was unreliable and absent. Maybe at some point they were date-raped or had an abusive boyfriend. Maybe they’ve just been cheated on too many times.
The lesson I learned over the past decade both in college and once out in the mythical “real world”: when you are in a relationship with a woman — particularly once you marry them — your job is to first clean up all the years’ worth of psychological garbage she’s collected from the previous so-called men in her life. And second, try to be a real man by not dumping more of your own selfish filth on her already overflowing pile.
This then is the challenge facing the under-30 women of today. On the one hand, they have been blessed with a tremendous power through the dedication of their mothers and big sisters. On the other, they continue to grapple with the same emotional and psychological challenges women have known since the beginning of time. And we know well that not all women are as strong and blessed as Olivia in being able to fix them.
As the under-30 women of the Millennial generation begin to heal their psyches and launch their careers, more work on par with Queens of all the Earth will show up in book stores. And I’m rather excited to see what emerges — because just what the Millennial female writers will create is still a big mystery.
And in trying to unravel the secret power of our wives, sisters, daughters, girlfriends, colleagues, and friends, I finally have to throw up my hands and turn the questions to PJM’s readers: How are the women of Generation Y different from their Gen-X sisters and Boomer mothers? (Note the operative word different, not better.) And what will those differences mean moving forward?
Over the last six years I’ve worked with women of all three generations (and also older women from the Silent Generation of 1925-1942). In editorial positions the opportunity to compare and contrast the female writers from each generation has been instructive. Consider the new media world. Compare the generational differences in writing and analysis of such Gen Y women as Hannah, Hot Air’s Tina Korbe, and Commentary‘s Alana Goodman and Bethany Mandel with such Gen-Xers as Michelle Malkin, Kathy Shaidle, Big Journalism’s Dana Loesch and the hosts of FTR radio’s “That’s What She Said,” Lori Ziganto and Jenn Taylor.
While I notice some stylistic, temperamental difference between the two cohorts — much as the difference between Olivia and Miranda is obvious — just how deep or significant the generational shift could be is a subject that I’m still trying to figure out. After almost three years of marriage my efforts to understand just a single Millennial woman are beginning to yield returns. Thus I’m hesitant about speculating further — women are more complicated than just their surface-level differences — and instead am more interested in what the women represented by the characters in Hannah’s novel have to say.
Boomer mothers: now that your daughters have grown into women, how are they different from how you were at their age?
Gen-X big sisters: have you been successful in helping the Gen-Y women avoid mistakes that you may have made? Or do Millennial women still have a lot to learn? Have they disappointed you?
And to my female Millennial peers: what lessons have you learned from your mentors that have shaped you into who you are today?
Please leave your thoughts in the comments below or contact me at DaveSwindlePJM AT gmail.com to share your insights for my follow-up piece.