Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

Title:  The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy
Author:  Rachel Joyce
Publication Information:  Random House. 2014. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0812996674 / 978-0812996678

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This may come to you as some surprise."

Favorite Quote:  "If you picture other people like you, you will no longer be alone. And when you share, you see that your own sorrow is not so big or special. You are only another person feeling sad, and soon it will pass and you will be another person, feeling happy. It takes the sting out of life, I find, when you realize you are not alone."

In 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was the debut novel by Rachel Joyce. It tells the story of Harold Fry, who walks across the country in response to a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessy. This book is the other side of that story; it is Queenie's story as she waits for Harold to arrive. Having read both, I cannot think of one without the other.

As she waits, Queenie writes Harold another letter, one that slowly describes her life and the secrets she has kept. "My secrets have been inside me for twenty years, and I must let them go before it is too late." Having read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I thought I knew how this story ends, but it surprises me nevertheless.

My least favorite parts of this book are the characterization of Queenie herself and the relationship with David. Queenie's story unfortunately is one of regret - both for things said and done and for things left unsaid and undone. The beginning of the book describes her actions, like how she gets her job at the brewery, as those of a courageous, confident young woman. Throughout the remainder of the book, she builds her life around a love that will not be. She spends her life hiding and running away, pining for an undeclared and unrequited love. Her garden becomes her solace through life, but even that is shrouded in regret. "My garden was a tribute to a man I could not have. It was my atonement for a terrible mistake." How sad and how frustrating. All through the book, I find myself wishing that she would find the courage she displayed at the beginning of the book.

The other aspect of the book I do not enjoy is the description the relationship with David. Without giving away the plot, I will say the whole situation seems contrived and just a bit odd. Is it a transference of a feeling for one person to another? Is it a way to hold closer something that is not to be? Is it to share in a part of someone's life even though that relationship does not exist for the other person? The entire relationship seems to have the elements of an unpleasant fixation.

My favorite parts of the book are the characters and descriptions of the hospice where Queenie lives and Rachel Joyce's writing itself. The hospice is place full of laughter, life, and even joy. The nuns who run it portray a sensitivity and caring that should be prevalent in health care today. The residents, with the exception of Queenie, seize life - whether it be letters, contests, puzzles, protein shakes, and even a wedding. Harold Fry's walk brings such joy to the hospice. While Queenie is in a place of regret and waiting, the rest of the hospice residents and caretakers get caught up in his adventure. Sadness and death of course is an undercurrent in a hospice, but overall, the residents embrace life.

Having now read both books, I do love Rachel Joyce's writing. While I do not care for the story in this book as much, I still find myself highlighting passages that speak to me.  Harold Fry's story seems to center on how extraordinary and deep a seemingly ordinary life can be. Queenie's story is about getting caught up in the sorrows of life to the point that you miss the joys. It is about reminding yourself to find joy and beauty even when surrounded by sadness. "... once in a while you have to stop in your tracks and admire the view, a small cloud and a tree outside your window. you have to see what you did not see before."

Interestingly, neither this book nor Harold Fry's story answer the question of why? Why does Queenie Hennessy fall so completely and absolutely in love and why does that love become the focal point of her entire life? We read of her love through her own words, but never why. Why does Harold Fry embark on a quest to see someone he once knew for a short time? The book itself provides a direction. "... perhaps it is wiser once in a while to accept that we don't understand, and stop there. To explain is sometimes to diminish. And what does it matter if I believe one thing and you believe another? We share the same end."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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