Rachel Joyce offers something rare in The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. The book is neither a prequel nor a sequel but a companion book to her moving 2012 debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In that first novel, Harold Fry, a retired Englishman, received a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who told him she was dying of cancer. Harold set out to send a bland reply but walked past one mailbox after another, finally deciding instead to trek on foot the full 600 miles to her hospice. Along the way, he alerted Queenie of his plans, sending a note that read: “I am very sorry. … Wait for me.”
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is told from Queenie’s perspective as she awaits Harold’s arrival. Like Harold’s book, Queenie’s can stand on its own as a warm, thoughtful tale about love, regret and redemption. But each novel adds depth and dimension to the other.
As we learned in The Unlikely Pilgrimage, he and Queenie long ago befriended each other at the brewery where they worked, he as a sales manager, she as an accountant. A mild-mannered married man dressed in unobtrusive shades of brown, Harold flew into an anguished, drunken rage after a family tragedy and destroyed some of his boss’ treasured possessions. Queenie stepped in to take the blame, was promptly fired and disappeared to the north of England. His journey, although ostensibly to thank her for saving his job all those years ago, became a kind of penance for past mistakes.
In this new novel, we meet Queenie. Before her move to hospice care, she has spent most of her years since leaving the brewery in a cliffside beach house tending her elaborate garden — a tribute to Harold, the gentle man whom she has quietly loved since the day they met. When she learns that Harold is on his way, she begins a letter to him confessing her affection and her secret role in his private tragedy. She thus starts a parallel journey, as she puts “one word in front of the other.”
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The book’s title is a play on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot’s famous poem about a frightened, balding man who has “measured out my life with coffee spoons” and asks, “do I dare to eat a peach?” Joyce doesn’t hold back on further Prufrockian allusions. Queenie imagines how, if it weren’t for the tragic events of 20 years ago, her chaste friendship with Harold would have continued undisturbed: “We would grow old … we would grow old. You would wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled. I would keep the truth untold.”
Sound depressing or maudlin? It’s actually not. Queenie, a more whimsical character than Harold, leavens her message to him with humor, especially as she describes her fellow hospice patients. They include a grumpy older man who points out that Harold might just as well hop a train, rather than create such a brouhaha with his time-consuming walk. “We could have this whole stupid business over and done with,” he says.
In the end, this lovely book is full of joy. Much more than the story of a woman’s enduring love for an ordinary, flawed man, it’s an ode to messy, imperfect, glorious, unsung humanity. Near death, Queenie is able to celebrate all that the despairing Prufrock could not: “[S]o many people going about their lives, millions of them, being ordinary, doing ordinary things that no one notices, that no one sings about, but there they are nevertheless, and they are filled with life. … Oh, so much beauty.”
Her love song is for us. Thank you, Rachel Joyce.
Christina Ian reviewed this book for The Washington Post.