I am a bibliomane. I read new novels, classics, interwar women’s novels, science fiction, biographies, memoirs, and the occasional out-of-print book. Have you read this, I ask. Did you know this tour de force has fallen out of print?
I am sometimes more successful than others in conveying my enthusiasm. I once recommended Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (NYRB) to a librarian. “This isn’t right for our patrons,” she said. (Danielle Steel was, though.) A member of the library book club seconded my request, but it wasn’t right for her, either, I guess.
Recently I reread Susan Richards Shreve’s out-of-print novel, Queen of Hearts. It was even more exquisite than I remembered.
The award-winning Shreve, the author of literary fiction, historical novels, memoirs, and children’s books, has a multitude of fans. Nancy Pearl, the famous librarian and author of Book Lust, chose Shreve’s quirky novel Plum and Jaggers to be reissued in the Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscoveries series. Pearl writes in the introduction, “…I’d eagerly await each new novel from Shreve, devour it with joy, and hope the wait for the next one wouldn’t be too long.”
I first read Queen of Hearts in 1987 when an editor gave me a review copy. This lyrical novel, with its intimation of magic realism, completely charmed me. I wonder now, looking at the cover, if it fell out of print because it was marketed to the wrong audience.
Queen of Hearts, by Susan Richards Shreve.
In The Arabian Nights, cunning Scheherazade tells a thousand and one magical tales that divert a bloodthirsty sultan’s murderous intentions.
If the legendary Scheherazade were cast as the heroine of a contemporary novel, she might be a lot like Francesca Woodbine, the pop singer with second sight who stars in Susan Richards Shreve’s enchanting novel.
Francesca is no ordinary pop singer. It takes an artist as intuitive as she to penetrate “the secret lives of ordinary people.” Thwarted composers, teenage Don Juans, would-be snake charmers, and lion tamers range the streets of her seemingly humdrum hometown in the guise of housewives, sexy boys, harmless booksellers, and cat lovers. In her songs, Francesca unveils their hidden passions and crimes.
Like her fortuneteller grandmother, Francesca is reported to have second sight, yet her insights are equally rooted in her own violent secrets. Raped at 14, she lived for years “like a nun.” Later, she murdered her fiance when she caught him philandering with a naked woman “in a swan hat.”
If this sounds a bit wild, well, it is–in the lush tradition of Toni Morrison and Alice Hoffman. Shreve’s finely tuned visual imagination meshes with her sense of the absurd to create a story as haunting as the songs of her protagonist.
At one point, Francesca’s mother, who longs to compose music, hallucinates “that mockingbirds with yellow breasts were filling her hospital room with song.” And in an erotic description of one of Francesca’s suitors, Hendrik is said to have “hair so black, it seemed wet.”
In an especially humorous passage, Francesca insists that her friend Maud has more on her mind than just boys. According to Francesca, even when Maud sleeps with boys, “she’s thinking about the theory of relativity or whether man is born innocent or whether there’s such a thing as salvation…. She’s very smart.”
When Francesca starts to tell the town’s stories in song, the citizens of Bethany, Massachusetts, get the jitters. How can she possibly know about the violent rape of gentle Billy Naylor? What is the origin of her Top 40 hit “Betrayal”? Recognizing the universality of human experience, Francesca wisely tells them, “Every woman knows about betrayal, but the story isn’t personal.”
And that’s the secret of the charm of Queen of Hearts. Shreve addresses our most heartfelt modern concerns in the impersonal form of a classy adult fairy tale. Do women really want to marry? Francesca and Maud dream of husbands and adventure in Paris. Maud, aware that Francesca’s illegitimate son is teased for not having a father, opts for an abortion when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock.
Although Francesca’s seductive music tames the violence in most men, she eventually falls in love with the only truly dangerous man in Bethany. From a literary point of view, the attraction between two unpunished murderers is apt. The hair-raising suspense, however, made this reviewer extremely nervous.
Luminous writing, eroticism, and suspense make this novel a heady treat. Read this book.