Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire — 368 pgs

Book CoverIt's 1999 in Thebes, New York. When Leontina Scales is knocked on the head by a falling statue of the Virgin Mary while pilfering from the refrigerator of the Catholic church, things get a little out of control. For Leontina, a single mother who is raising three wayward teenagers, the bump on the noggin is just enough to throw her over the edge. Soon she begins to act very strange indeed, speaking in tongues and reverting back to a simpler time in her life. Meanwhile, Jeremy, the parish choir director, is trying to assemble a group of friends for a shot at the musical big time, but is finding obstacles creeping up along the way. Jeremy is a Catholic of a very different variety, and along with his friends is trying to keep a lid on his often misunderstood lifestyle. Added into the mix is an ancient group of nuns that Jeremy and his singing group befriend and one very antagonistic and foul-mouthed teenage girl, making the little town of Thebes, New York on the cusp of Y2K a very strange place indeed.

I've read quite a few of Magiure's books and was eager to get the chance to read this one as well. I thought that Wicked was pretty darn incredible, and though I liked it's sequels a little less ferociously, I think Maguire has a really interesting talent for taking fairy tales and twisting them into thrilling and novel new permutations. So when I started this book, I was a tad confused. This book was really a departure for Maguire, as not only was it a different genre, the inclusion of so much humor was also different for him. While it took me some time to adjust, I ended up really enjoying this book despite my preconceived notions about it.

This book was really thought-provoking in the ways it examined the fragile bonds that hold a community together. There was a small town feel to the story and as the book progressed, there was a great feeling of peeking into the microcosm of small town America. Part of the story was about two opposing churches, and while I wouldn't call it a rivalry exactly, there were some definite undercurrents of us versus them that were gradually hurdled as the narrative moved forward. Both church leaders had strong ties to the community, albeit in very different ways, and both of them found themselves coming to Leontina's aid in some pretty surprising ways. One of the things I found most interesting was the tentative relationship that began to develop between Jeremy's group and the nuns. They were as different as different could be but they seemed to find common ground to put aside the bonds of convention and be supportive of one another in a few unexpected and touching demonstrations of unity.

I liked that Maguire found the humor in religion and its trappings without becoming derisive and mocking. Yes, the churches had their problems, and yes, there was a lot to poke fun at, but Maguire handled his subjects with a great deal of respect. A lot of the religious stereotypes were represented in relief but there wasn't a feeling of moral judgement hanging over the story like a pall. There was a certain amount of reverence attached to these things and Maguire's attitude towards it all was mildly surprising and pleasing. In my opinion, it's hard to write about religion and spirituality without becoming either too fawning or too dismissive, but Maguire seems to hit the right note, making his characters lovable but flawed.

Though this was a rather comedic book, there were a lot of more somber and reflective aspects to the story, particularly the sections dealing with spiritual confusion and the plight of gay individuals afflicted with disease. The way Maguire mixed these mediums was done with a grace and compassion that I haven't seen in his other writing. These sections weren't depressing or maudlin but rather more matter-of-fact and thoughtful. I'm always surprised when a favorite author manages to tread sensitive new ground with aplomb and was glad to see that Maguire didn't try to cheapen the emotion of his story by becoming flippant and trite. A few revelations had me a little misty eyed at times, and though the emotion could run high, there wasn't a sense of over dramatization in the more somber reflections of his characters.  

This book was populated by a lot of unusual characters, which is something I always enjoy when it's done well. From the morally conflicted pastor to the wizened and sarcastic nuns to the very strange Leontina Scales herself, Maguire did a wonderful job of making this cast of characters colorful and surprisingly fresh. The characters were not at all what I had been expecting and it added another whole level of unpredictability to this story. Not all of these characters were likable; some were a little off-putting or even repugnant, but like those that were better loved, they were drawn with complexity and dimension that made them easy to relate to and understand.

As I mentioned before, this book is a departure for Maguire, but although it was different than what I had been expecting, I found it to be a really involving read. Readers that appreciate a good dose of humor inside a dramatic framework would really love this book and those who don't mind reading about the lighter side of spirituality would probably also have fun with it. After seeing what Maguire can do when he steps out of his box, I'm eager to see what he has in store for his readers. This book was unexpectedly successful with me, as I think it would be for a lot of others, so I think it might be something to take a chance on.

Author Photo About the Author

Gregory Maguire is the bestselling author of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Lost, Mirror, Mirror, Matchless, Making Mischief, and the Wicked Years series that includes A Lion Among Men, Son of a Witch, and Wicked, now a beloved classic and the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name. Maguire has lectured on art, literature, and culture both at home and abroad. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

Visit Maguire at his website.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, October 5th:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Thursday, October 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, October 12th:Colloquium
Wednesday, October 13th:Booksie’s Blog
Thursday, October 14th:The Lost Entwife
Monday, October 18th:Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, October 20th:In the Next Room
Thursday, October 21st:The Scholastic Scribe
Monday, October 25th:Fyrefly’s Book Blog
Wednesday, October 27th:Til We Read Again
Thursday, October 28th:All About {n}
Friday, October 29th:Reviews from the Heart
Tuesday, November 2nd:Nonsuch Book

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

I haven't read any of his books. I have Wicked and a few others but I never got around to reading them. This one sounds very interesting. Great post!

bermudaonion said...

I'm not a huge fan of Maguire's fairy tale re-tellings, so I just might like this. I like that fact that he used humor without being degrading. Great review, as always!

Jenny said...

Hmm, this sounds really good! There was some talk about it at BEA but it just never caught my attention. May need to add it to the list now!

Marg said...

I have only read one book by Maguire, and while I liked the idea of it, I really didn't like the execution. I have owned Wicked for years and still haven't read it!

I always feel as though I should really like his books, but I can't see myself trying another one any time soon to find out if it was just that one book that I didn't like, or if it was his writing as a whole!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see he's moving away from the retelling of fairy tales! I was starting to wonder if he could come up with anything original (not that his take on the fairy tales wasn't original, but I wanted an entirely new idea).

Vasilly said...

Great review! I'm glad that you told us that this is a huge departure for Maguire. I didn't care for any of his other books so I'll give this one a try.

Suko said...

Zibilee, this sounds fascinating! I have not read Wicked, and would probably be more apt to pick up this one now instead. Your review is quite thoughtful and well expressed, as always. The Next Queen of Heaven sounds like it includes a large dose of humor, coupled with a quiet respect for religion.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I have not read ANY of his books, but I liked what you had to say about his latest one:)

Jenners said...

I haven't read any of his books yet, but I've always been interested in trying Wicked now that it is such a big deal musical and all.

It sounds like this book is him growing as an author and doing a pretty good job of it.

Wonderful review.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather J. @ TLC Books said...

I'm so glad to see that you enjoyed this one! Like you, I first thought it would be similar to Maguire's fairy-tale-themed books, but it definitely is not. It sounds like it has the potential to be just as successful though, and that's a good thing. :)

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

ok, i hate to admit this; i have all of his books except this one but i have not had a chance to read a single one!!! shh, i'm only admitting that to you now! but eventually, once i catch up on all those books from SIBA and the other ones I need to read then I'm going to get to him...but this one especially sounds like one I would adore!!!

Amy said...

Wicked is only of my absolute favorite books, though the other fairy tale re-tellings I've tried by him I haven't liked as much. This does sound completely different - but kind of interesting! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Kristi said...

I've read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and I really enjoyed it, but I couldn't get through Wicked. This book sounds more like something I would enjoy. Great review.

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

This was such an incredible review -- I could certainly get the sense of your initial hesitation since it seems so different than what he normally writes, but it sounds like it was a fantastic read that you really enjoyed, which is always a good thing! I haven't read any of his books yet, so clearly I need to remedy this right away!

Literary Feline said...

I've only read one of Maguire's books (Wicked) and really liked it. I've been curious about this one but didn't know much about it, so was glad to come across your review. It sounds like he was able to pull it off quite well, and I'm glad to hear it. Thanks for another wonderful review.

Marie Cloutier said...

I can't wait to read this. I picked it up at NEIBA and it looks so great. Maguire is local to the Boston area and I hope to see him at a reading soon, too!

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I somehow haven't read Maguire before, but this one sounds like a lovely winter read. I am a big fan of humor in a dramatic story.

S. Krishna said...

I actually didn't pick this one up because I didn't love Wicked. Your review has me intrigued though!

Melissa said...

Your review has me interested. I've only read one Maguire book, and haven't gotten to the others because the reviews are all over the place. This one does sound very different, and I might have to give it a try.

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