On the day she’s supposed to start at Cornell University, Olivia Somerset sits catatonic in her bed. Diagnosed with a nervous breakdown, it takes months of recovery before Olivia is in motion again. A trip to Barcelona with her older sister Miranda seems to be the final attempt to get Olivia back on track. Once there, the two encounter a wide variety of characters at their hostel, including a clergyman and his son, Greg, who immediately takes an interest in Olivia. As the two girls explore the sometimes wild city, Olivia works to understand her reticence to step into adulthood as she struggles with her budding feelings for Greg.
Sternberg’s debut novel is a modern retelling of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, a classic story which Sternberg has attempted to update by incorporating her generation’s issues with adulthood and growing up (Sternberg herself is in her early twenties). There is also inspiration drawn from e.e. cummings’s poem “orientale,” which is where the novel gets its title. All of this is fine enough on its own, but Sternberg’s well-written novel doesn’t ever quite deliver on what it attempts to do.
The problems begin with the fact that Sternberg doesn’t spend any time on developing her characters. A lack of development of any of the characters means that readers don’t connect to the plight of each of the girls, and what’s worse is that it’s difficult to sympathize or even understand them when they face conflict late in the story. Olivia’s romance with Greg–and Miranda’s flirtation with a priest about to take his orders–never get off the ground and never feel like more than cardboard attempts at romantic connections.
A lack of character development could be forgiven if the plotting moved quickly enough to make up for it. However, this is not the case. Too often, Sternberg’s narration becomes overwrought, the plot and pacing stalling out as the girls contemplate their situation and their surroundings. There isn’t enough story here to propel even the 160 short pages of this novel, and the result is a slow (kinder reviewers might refer to this as “deliberate”) pace that offers too little in excitement or interest.
Finally, the novel’s third person omniscient narration is jarring and often confusing. It’s an ambiguous point of view to use in a story, and it does nothing to serve the story or its characters here. Some readers might not mind the point of view, but this reviewer found it hard to connect to anything in the story as a result.
It’s not all bad, though. Readers who enjoy stories about sisters or travel might find value in Sternberg’s work. It’s a quiet little tale, and while it seems to be short on character development and actual plot, it’s certainly an interesting idea. I just wish it had been executed better.
The Queens of All the Earth by Hannah Sternberg. Bancroft Press: 2011. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.