the love song of miss queenie hennessy
If you adored Rachel Joyce's first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, you will likely welcome and appreciate the companion novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.
But you need to beware, as well.
When I saw Random House offering Queenie's story for early review, I was so excited to read about her end of England. If you haven't read Harold's story, I strongly suggest you do so first. They're companion novels; this isn't a sequel but rather Queenie's story told at the same time as Harold's but though of course because she isn't making a physical pilgrimage across England, much of what we hear from her is the past, and what happened between her and Harold. And Harold's son, David.
Although I liked Harold's story very much, I had some issues with it. I know the book was entitled The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I understand that a pilgrimage was the point of the novel as, eventually, we realize that the story was more about Harold's own life and experiences than it was about his desire to reunite with Queenie. But his stated purpose was to see Queenie before her death, and it was frustrating as hell to watch him walk for three months to get there when, if his compassionate purpose was to see her and give her some comfort, he could've taken a train or something. A car or a flight, of course, could've helped him arrive sooner but at least a train could've given him time for all that life speculation but also allowed him to see Queenie earlier. Also, his son, a central component of Harold's story, was a complete and utter asshole. Although I liked Harold and felt compassion for his story, it was difficult to feel any concern for his son.
In Queenie's story, David is still an absolutely despicable person. Although his presence is integral to Harold and Queenie's story, I once again despised his presence and couldn't care less about what happened to him.
But it's okay to ignore David because this is Queenie's story. And my warning for you, if you loved Harold's tender and warm story, is that Queenie's is much darker. Although I've seen words like heartwarming used for Harold's story, there was some difficulties and dark days there. Queenie's story is much darker, though, and in the end I liked her story more than I did Harold's. In fact, by the end, I sort of liked Harold and his wife, Maureen, a bit less.
When you read Harold's story, you're not certain as to how Queenie felt about him. Caution: very minor spoilers following. One realizes early on in Queenie's story that she was in love with Harold. I adored how Joyce set this up; Queenie essentially falls in love with Harold the first time she sees him and before they even meet. It's not a fall in love/lust at first sight because he's so handsome or anything but rather because she witnesses both his tender and strong strengths in one fell swoop. Because Harold is married and Queenie also meets him at a difficult transition in her life, this affection for the man she works with only ever brings her heartache, even during those shining moments with him.
Queenie's history and contemporary life is difficult and lonely. She is, after all, in a hospice when Harold sets out to see her. At one point, Queenie writes about how she meets up with some young women out for a hen party and compares her own life to the young bride to be:
"I considered my life. There had been no party, no speech about my kindness, no special dress, no confetti. Nobody had sat with me every evening or woken every morning at my side. And although I told myself it was my choice, that instead I had a garden and my solitude, I felt cold even in the sun and could not eat."
And Queenie's choice is her own; I could see a reader becoming frustrated with her pining, with the decisions she made all because of a man she loved but could not hold: "We expect our happiness to come with a sign and bells, but it doesn't. I loved you and you didn't know. I loved you and that was enough." But I can understand Queenie's story and I felt it was stronger and with more depth and love than Harold's journey. Highly recommended.
*BONUS: In December 2014, The Guardian published The Boxing Day Ball, a short story by Joyce about the night that Harold and Maureen meet: The Boxing Day Ball.