About a year ago, my neighborhood book group read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (my review at the link) by Rachel Joyce and overwhelmingly enjoyed it. We loved its sense of humor but also its emotional depth and found plenty to discuss. So, when I saw the companion novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, sitting on a shelf near the checkout desk at my library, I grabbed it. Like Harold Fry, this follow-up novel by Joyce has the same perfect mix of warmth, humor, and reflection.
It’s not completely necessary to have read Harold Fry first, but I’d recommend it. In that novel, a retired man named Harold takes off on an unplanned journey – really more of a quest – to visit his old friend, Queenie. After 20 years of not hearing from Queenie after they’d worked together, Harold receives a postcard from her, explaining that she is in hospice, dying. Harold sets out to mail a letter in return and, instead, ends up walking the entire length of England to see her.
In this companion novel, we see this same journey from Queenie’s perspective. She receives a postcard from Harold when he begins his walk, asking her to wait for him, and she – and the rest of the hospice residents – set off on their own emotional journey to wait for Harold. The excitement grows as his incredible walk continues and they receive postcard updates, and eventually, Harold’s pilgrimage is covered in the news. The reader meets all of Queenie’s fellow residents, plus the nuns who are caring for them. They are mostly strangers at the start of the novel, to each other as well as to us, who become friends as the story continues.
Meanwhile, Queenie is undertaking her own personal journey, struggling with her late-stage cancer disabilities to write to Harold as he walks. She wants to explain why she left so abruptly twenty years earlier, why she never got in touch with him again, and what happened all those years ago that he never knew about. Just as Harold struggled with his own internal demons as he walked in the first novel, here, Queenie battles her own demons and works through them on paper as she waits. She also describes the new life she has made for herself these past twenty years, in her little cottage along the shore. I especially loved her descriptions of her sea garden (and flipped back often to the lovely drawing of it at the front of the book by Laura Hartman Maestro).
The chapters alternate between what is happening now, in the hospice, with Queenie and the other residents and their caregivers and what happened over twenty years ago, as Queenie writes her lengthy letter to Harold. We see the causes and effects and how the events of so long ago still impact Queenie’s life now. As Queenie writes and tells her story, surprises are gradually revealed. The events of the present are just as engaging, though, as Harold’s journey gives the patients something to live for and they gradually open up to each other and become not just friends, but family in those last days of their lives.
Although Harold Fry is still my favorite of the two novels, for the clever way that Harold’s physical journey mirrored his emotional one, as layers peeled away while he walked, I enjoyed Queenie Hennessy very much and for similar reasons. Joyce has a wonderful way of weaving humor into the story, even as difficult or sad events are occurring. As you might expect from a novel set in a hospice, there is a lot of death in this story. That was difficult at times for me, since I just lost my father to cancer last summer, but it was also cleansing and comforting – I only wish that his hospice had been as wonderful as Queenie’s!
Despite the sad circumstances of the story, there are times when it is laugh-out funny, as when one of the hospice residents struggles to explain to one of the nuns what a “Brazilian” is, after joking about losing her hair! This novel is a warm, funny, introspective examination of life and death, of mistakes and amends made, of love and friendship. I filled pages and pages of my Quote Journal with beautifully written passages that felt like they perfectly described my own life as well as Queenie’s. I enjoyed its combination of humor, poignancy, and philosophy and was sorry to say goodbye finally to both Harold and Queenie.
362 pages, Random House