Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Prize for First Fiction by an American author
Joan Chase’s subtle story of three generations of women negotiating lifetimes of “joy and ruin” deserves its place alongside such achievements as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.
The Queen of Persia is in fact Gram, who presides over an Ohio farmhouse teeming with daughters, granddaughters, and the occasional son-in-law. For the youngest generation, the four girls who together narrate the novel, the farm is a kind of Eden, at once life-giving and the locus of terrible discoveries about desire and loss. The girls bicker and scrap, whisper secrets at bedtime, and above all watch as their mothers draft templates of womanhood that they will come to either reject or embrace. Ingeniously orchestrated in overlapping, thematic narratives, the story of Gram, her five daughters, and her grandchildren reveals itself through the accumulation of emotional truths, reaching its heights in the decline of Grace, whose eventual death from cancer is a loss felt throughout the book. Set in the 1950s and ’60s, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is deeply rooted in its particular time and place, as the local, rural, and hardscrabble world the girls are born into remakes itself into a materially rich suburb, indistinguishable from so many others.
Moving, unusual and accomplished…. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is a Norman Rockwell painting gone bad, the underside of the idyllic hometown, main-street, down-on-the-farm dream of Middle America…. The prose is limpid, the characterization vibrant, the dialogue crisp…. In its evocative power, its understated skill, the vividness of its description, its noncosmopolitan setting and its orientation toward the next-to-immediate past, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia takes its place among several other recent works that are also concerned with the female matrix: Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women and, in a Southern variant, Helen Henslee’s Pretty Redwing. This is excellent company, and During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is an important debut by a fine new writer.
—Margaret Atwood, The New York Times
Absorbing and wonderfully written.
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
Brilliant and compelling…. A lush lyrical world of unsparing reality.
—The Plain Dealer
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia offers an exoticism of the emotions and daily life exhilarated with the richness and evocativeness of poetry…. Joan Chase [has] an artist’s passion for rendering reality accurately, a love of the tactile world, of sensual experience, and a willingness to confront, without resolving, her characters’ grievous ambiguities…. Splendid and durable.
—The Washington Post Book World
Eloquent, compelling, and honest.
—San Francisco Chronicle Review
Appealing and original…. Read the novel once for the characters, sorting out the strands of their lives, seen through eyes gone from innocence to knowing. It should be read again immediately for its language and imagery, the memory of a dappled sunshine, of the indomitable fierce Gram, and for its understanding of an endangered species called the American family.
—Detroit Free Press
An absolutely first-class novel…. The candid viewing of events through four girls’ eyes is a wonderfully effective narrative technique that does much to give the book its rough-grained, realistic texture…. The novel, sparely elegant in style and precise in nuance, turns over our romanticized notions of our rural past.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is beautifully written and evocative, with the most richly imagined characters I have come across in a long time. Its surprising choice of narrators—not I or he or she, but we—is just one indication of its originality.
This kind of writing is a gift, and one should be grateful. Joan Chase, in a quiet, lyrical, highly intelligent way, is excavating and reconstructing the remains of the American family. She’s like an archaeologist of our recent past and present, reading our traces back to us, showing us to ourselves freshly discovered and understood.
There are several ways of interpreting Joan Chase’s remarkable first novel: as a romantic saga about life back on the farm; as the struggle of three generations of women against the forces of life and men; as an accomplished grouping of family portraits. But this is one of those books that can’t be characterized solely in terms of plot or thematic content, and one must emphasize the writing itself—not everyone can write this kind of prose. It is made of rhythms, images and metaphors that involve both sense and spirit and allow the reader, through the narrator, to experience a tone of the keenest excitement and awe.