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Book review of 'The Next Queen of Heaven' by Gregory Maguire

By Elizabeth Hand
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; C04

Not even the reformed Scrooge can compete with best-selling novelist Gregory Maguire, who's giving away his newest book. Not an e-book or a download, but a good old-fashioned page-turner, with real pages. Maguire's "The Next Queen of Heaven" is the latest offering from Concord Free Press, a nonprofit organization that, in lieu of a cover price, asks readers to donate to a local charity, church or struggling Bob Cratchit, then pass the book on to someone else. Readers can post their donations on the publisher's Web site, and track the progress of each numbered copy (there's a page at the back for readers to inscribe their names).

But what about the novel? It's a delight. Set in the last days of 1999, in the desolate Upstate New York town of Thebes, "The Next Queen of Heaven" charts the unlikely spiritual journey of Tabitha, a foul-mouthed 17-year-old knocked up by a guy who ditches her. Tabitha may be the Shameless Hussy of Thebes, but her mother, Leontina, belongs to the Cliffs of Zion Radical Radiant Pentecostal Fellowship. Still, Leontina is not above filching some 2 percent milk from the refrigerator at the Our Lady Catholic Church next door.

But Our Lady -- or Someone, anyway -- has other plans. While committing her crime, Leontina gets beaned by a statue of the Virgin Mary and ends up in the hospital. This leaves Tabitha in charge of her younger brothers and an aphasic mother, who now speaks only in punning biblical verses.

Leontina's mishap brings together nearly all the residents of Thebes. These include Our Lady's music director, Jeremy, still pining for his former lover, now married; Jeremy's HIV-positive friends Sean and Marty; Pastor Huyck and Father Mike; along with various congregants, atheists, in-laws and nuns. Especially lovely is the precarious fellowship that develops between Jeremy and his friends and the elderly Sisters of the Sorrowful Mysteries, the only remaining members of their Order.

"In youth we accepted a life without children, believing that we would not die alone," says Mother Clare. "But the modern times play tricks on us. . . . Nuns in our 70's and 80's, we find ourselves bereft of a younger generation, our sisters who would also have been our daughters. . . . For gay men who are threatened by AIDS, who are dying young and childless too -- it is not such a different situation. Perhaps, perhaps God brought us together." God, or Gregory Maguire.

As of mid-December, more than $120,000 has been given to charity by Concord Free Press readers. You, too, can embrace the spirit of the season and request a copy of this funny and warmhearted exploration of the sacred and the profane at http://www.concordfreepress.com.

Hand's novel "Illyria" will be published next spring.

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