“Where Women Are Kings” by Christie Watson
Did you love The Goldfinch? This is the book for you. Did you hate The Goldfinch? This is also the book for you. This may seem like a contradiction, but both major differences from and particular traits in common with Donna Tartt’s blockbuster lend Where Women Are Kings literary strength. New in paperback from Other Press, it will be the darling of book clubs and solo readers alike if it can get the attention it deserves.
Despite its status as a bestseller many times over and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a number of customers at the bookstore where I work picked up The Goldfinch knowing next to nothing about it–their book clubs had selected it, they’d been given a vague recommendation by a friend, or they cracked the spine because it just seemed to be what everyone was reading–and some of them didn’t like it. The most common complaints? The book is too long, the content is too explicit, and the structure grows repetitive toward the end. In short, they wanted to see more editing.
The people who loved The Goldfinch, however, loved it not always in spite of but because of its bulk and excess. Customer after customer raved that in a tale so heart-wrenching, so raw, and so nakedly honest in its depiction of a too-early severance of the mother/child relationship, there could not be a word too many. Even Theodore Decker’s most lost and decadent moments pushed to the fore each reader’s own long-buried traumas, and the ringing truths the novel contains felt, to these readers, utterly necessary. For these readers, word count didn’t matter because they truly felt each adjective, verb, and noun filling page after page. To them, quantity is no issue when in service of quality; of visceral impact and dramatic effect.
Where Women Are Kings deals just as poignantly with the deep crisis a young boy undergoes when he’s suddenly separated from his mother. In this case, however, Elijah’s mother has never been well. He has no angelic figure to remember as he grapples with his permeating sense of loss. Throughout his life with her, she’s struggled with widowhood, psychosis, and the sinister influence of a profiteering preacher who tells her that to save Elijah’s soul, she must use only the toughest of tough love and outright abuse his body. At just seven years old, Elijah is torn from her for his own safety.
When he’s adopted by an interracial couple, he knows for certain only two things: he is bad and evil because of the wizard who sometimes possesses his body, and every terrible thing ever done to him only proved his mother’s complete and remarkable love for him. Coping with this is enough of a challenge for adoptive parents Nikki and Obi, who have been through their own ordeal, but when Elijah and his new family begin bonding, his cognitive dissonance around being worthy of love intensifies the struggle for everybody involved. Events only grow more tragic from there, culminating in a harrowing passage in a hospital.
Because she uses the narrative voices of several different characters, Christie Watson can accomplish in 256 pages what took Tartt 784. The death of a parent, the heart-wrenching separation of mother and child, the struggle and failure to readjust to daily life–all these are present in both texts. In Where Women Are Kings, however, we see issues like interracial adoption, religious exploitation, mental illness, and attachment disorder explored from multiple perspectives and in streamlined prose. It delivers the same emotional punch as The Goldfinch, but more variedly, more straightforwardly, and in less than half the number of pages. Watson also gives readers the ending that they may see coming about halfway through the novel–the ending we know too many real children who go through foster care eventually meet. This will satisfy anybody who shouted, “OH, COME ON!” at the end of Tartt’s novel before flinging it upon the sofa.
With its multiple points for book club discussion and numerous tearjerker plot points, Where Women Are Kings is a natural recommendation for anyone who says they loved The Goldfinch because it kept them grabbing for the Kleenex. Watson’s slimmer tome is, on the other hand, also perfect for anybody who prefers using Tartt’s hefty bestseller as a doorstop.
Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson (Other Press | 9781590517093 | April 28, 2015)