Rachel Joyce's earlier novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was such a delightful surprise for me. I read it on vacation a few years ago and it remained one of my favorite books of 2012, so when she recently published the companion novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, I knew immediately that I would want to read it.
Queenie Hennessy, the object of Harold's pilgrimage, is the first person narrator in this novel. She's dying of cancer and she divides her time between interacting with the nurses and fellow patients of the hospice center and writing a long letter to Harold revealing the secrets she has been harboring for decades. The reader knows from the start that one of them has been her clandestine love for Harold all of these years, but the second secret, involving Harold's son, is of a darker stripe and unfolds more gradually. Along the way, we get updates on Harold's progress on his pilgrimage, as this book is not a chronological sequel to Harold Fry, but a concurrent one.
Unlike Harold Fry, this novel does not stand on its own. It is dependent on its predecessor for much of its context and, frankly, its emotional content. Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy it. I did. I liked getting Queenie's story, her many frustrations and her infrequent, small joys. She's also a more intelligent and observant character than Harold was, so it's nice to see the world from her eyes. There are lots of literary allusions sprinkled throughout the book in Queenie's letter to Harold, two of which I remember were references to J. Alfred Prufrock and a poem by Emily Dickinson. There were lots more that I don't recall, and no doubt scads more that I didn't recognize at all.
Rachel Joyce does a particularly good job of evoking end-of-life moments with Queenie and her fellow terminal patients. There were occasions when I was moved to tears and there were other times when I became so impatient with the deliberate pace of the story that I did some heavy skimming. This is not a perfect book, but it has its share of perfect moments, and sometimes that is all I need as a reader.
Now that I've had time to reflect on both books, I think I might have enjoyed a book that integrated both Harold's and Queenie's stories into one. The individual books were both overall charming but containing unnecessary filler to draw them out to full novels. Combining both stories would have been better, and I suspect that if film rights are involved, it would make an excellent movie that way, too. If you read and loved Harold Fry like I did, then you should absolutely see what the other half of the story is. If you didn't read or didn't love Harold Fry, then I wouldn't recommend this one to you.
One of the things I like about Joyce's writing is her knack for summing up characters in one or two offhand sentences. A couple of examples:
"He kept checking his cuffs, his hair, his shoes, the way people do when they're unsure and they need to remind themselves where they stop and the rest of the world begins."
"The world is full of women who have children, and women who don't, but there is also a silent band of women who almost had them. I am one of those."
NB: This book has been out for some time in the UK, but it released here in the US just last week. I read an advance reading copy provided at my request from my wonderful sales rep.