Mrs. Leontina Scales is a thrice-divorced mother of three teenagers residing in the little town of Thebes in late 1999. She is a member of Cliffs of Zion Radical Radiant Pentecostal Church which sits adjacent to and shares a parking lot with the local Catholic parish. After a particularly difficult morning spent dealing with her oldest child, 17 year old Tabitha, Mrs. Scales goes to church. She is in charge of preparing coffee for her fellow congregants, so she slips out of the Inner Breathing class to do so, but realizes that she forgot to stop en route that morning and buy cream. She decides to venture across the parking lot to borrow some from the Catholic neighbors. In the downstairs kitchen, a large statue slips off the top of the Eisenhower-era refrigerator where it has long been stored, striking Mrs. Scales on the head and knocking her unconscious. It is a genuinely life-altering moment for Mrs. Scales and her family. When she regains consciousness, she is able to speak, but she no longer pronounces the first letters of most words and her personality has undergone radical change.
Jeremy Carr is the young special education teacher and music director at the Catholic church. He plans to participate in a musical competition in New York City in January 2000, and has enlisted the assistance of his two friends, Sean Riley and Marty Rothbard. The trio needs rehearsal space, so when Father Mike tells him that the church is booked virtually every night for the next eight weeks, Sister Alice arranges an unusual alliance. The three gay musicians will rehearse at the local convent in exchange for visiting a bit each time they rehearse with the aged nuns who are cloistered there.
Gregory Maguire is best known for his re-telling of classic fairy tales such as Cinderella (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) and Snow White (Mirror, Mirror), as well as being the man who finally explained to the world why the Wicked Witch of the West is green in Wicked, upon which the Best Musical of the Decade is based. So The Next Queen of Heaven is a departure, for which Maguire asks in the opening Author’s Note that his readers forgive his “trespasses,” although he suspects “that heaven may be both more disguised and more accessible than any other fantastic locale I might choose to write about.”
Maguire writes exquisitely. He is among the most imaginative and inventive writers of our time. And those qualities are readily apparent in The Next Queen of Heaven.
It is a difficult book to describe because, from the outset Maguire’s writing style sets a quirky, eccentric tone. Maguire writes with precision. It is obvious that each and every word has been chosen with particularity and purpose, and his descriptive prose brings the settings and characters to life in prolific and painstaking detail. Still, the reader’s emotional connection to the characters takes time to develop. Events unfold, the characters’ various dilemmas are revealed, but it does not become clear for many pages why the reader should care or if Maguire is ever going to reveal the meaning behind this hilariously satirical tale.
Without warning, more than halfway through the book, it begins to make sense. Maguire expertly begins the process of weaving the various characters’ stories together, revealing their connectness and similaries, showing how they are all part of a community. The Pentecostals and Catholics, depicted at the outset as divided by more than their mutual parking lot, are, ultimately, not as different or divisive as they initially appeared. Sean and Marty, along with, to a lesser extent, Jeremy, discover that their preconceived ideas about what kind of woman becomes a nun and what the cloistered sisters’ lives have been like are quite off the mark. And the sisters are not nearly as naive or uninformed about the world as the young men initially believed.
As for Tabitha, the smart-talking, disrespectful young woman who is determined to fail in order to prove her nonconformist rebellion is genuine, learns a few lessons about life, disappointment, and what it means to love. To reveal Mrs. Scales’ fate would ruin the fun of reading the book and appreciating her journey.
The Next Queen of Heaven is as much morality play and social comment as it is fiction. Maguire gently, irreverently pokes fun at religion and the traditions in which it is steeped, cleverly asking his readers to examine their own views on the topic. He also explores, through his fantastical lens, the topics of gay rights, women’s rights, family relationships, and what it means to truly live in community with one another.
The Next Queen of Heaven is not only difficult to describe, but difficult to forget. The characters, their often hilarious behavior, and the manner in which they approach their individual problems are memorable, and often poignant. Maguire’s work succeeds because it is not only entertaining, but demands that the reader look at the characters’ lives — and, ultimately, their own — from a unique angle. No, The Next Queen of Heaven will not appeal to all readers, especially if put off by strong and frank language or uninterested in a satirical look at religion that borders on, but never fully becomes disrespectful. But if you enjoy a quirky story that will leave you pondering how you feel about the topics Maguire explores, you will find yourself again enchanted by Maguire’s beautifully written The Next Queen of Heaven.