Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy: A Lovely Surprise

I admit I am fickle. My to-do lists don't always work because I keep changing them. My to-read list is even worse.  No matter what book I think I'll read next, some other volume jumps the line. Of course, with my audiobook selections, the finds are often serendipitous, as was the case with Rachel Joyce's new novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.

I had read her earlier novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry at the recommendation of one of my once-a-year reader friends I know through the National Council of Teachers of English convention sessions--Readers Ourselves. The novel followed the journey of a man, recently retired, as he decides almost by default to walk to the north of England to see once more Queenie Hennessy after he receives a letter from her to let him know she is in hospice and wishes to thank him for his long-ago friendship. It was a charming, wonderful story that stuck in my head.

I had no idea Joyce had written another novel until I saw it on the shelf. I think she was almost as surprised to start writing it.  In this story (a pattern I'm recognizing in lots of my reading lately), she tells the story from the point of view of Queenie. Most of the story is set in the Catholic hospice where she is living out her final days. When she receives a card from Harold--whom she hasn't seen in many years--telling her he is coming to see her and advising her to wait, the message has an effect on all of the patients and caregivers at the facility.

In preparation for Harold's arrival, Queenie begins writing a long letter of confession, with the help of one of the nuns and her portable typewriter.  Through the letters, readers learn about Queenie's life, particularly at the time of many of the events Harold recalled in the earlier book.  While the book would certainly stand alone, I strongly advice anyone to read the other book first.  Since I had read it at least a couple of years ago, this book felt like revisiting an old friend, having  my memory pleasantly jogged along the way.

The best surprise in reading the novel is that the most pleasant passages occur in the hospice facility. Joyce's characters are colorful and so well-drawn. The patients and the nuns who work there are quirky, sometimes curmudgeonly, yet lovable.  As one of the women reminds the others: I may be dying but I'm not dead yet. Maybe that's the take-away from the book: there's such a beauty in the way the characters learn to make the most of the time they do have.

Reading the book--these books--makes me want to take my own pilgrimage to some of the more out-of-the-way places in England too.  Maybe I'd even find Queenie's sea garden.

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