The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, by Rachel Joyce, is interesting and tender and filled with the intimate thoughts of a person who wants to say all that is in her heart, and on her mind, before she dies. I'm not giving anything away by say she's dying, as that is how we meet her at the beginning of Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which you really must read before reading this one). In the first book, Queenie sends Harold a letter telling him she was dying, and she has sent the letter to say goodbye. Harold, unexpectedly, decides to walk to see her. His book is about his own journey, but it is not told in first person. In this second book, Queenie is our narrator, and she definitely has a story to tell.
The story begins with Queenie at the end of her life in a hospice-type care facility. She looks over her life in flashbacks and shares with the reader her joys and her sorrows, her regrets and her triumphs. However, it isn't the reader she's sharing it with, really. It's Harold, Harold Fry. As the reader, we witness the letter - or the love song - she writes to share her last thoughts with Harold.
Queenie's story runs parallel to Harold's. She passes the time, waiting him to show up, by writing him a letter describing not only her present, but her past. She tells him what her life was like as a child, how she felt going off to Oxford, about previous relationships, and about how she came to work at the same place as Harold. She reminds him of the first time they met, and she tells him secrets about her past he never knew. The letter builds up to the moment she left town without telling him, twenty years ago, and her confession of why she left.
I'm not giving anything away by saying she also confesses her love for him. After all, it is the title of the book and says as much on the back synopsis. It is how she loves him, though, that is so beautiful and remarkable and tender. Queenie's words reminded me of one of my favorite Patrick Rothfuss quotes:
"It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That's as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect."
And, just in case you're wondering, I do believe you can love someone who doesn't love you back in the same way. I believe you can carry someone in your heart all your life who is no longer a part of your life. I believe true love is when you love someone without expecting anything in return. You love them because of who they are, not what they do for you. If you don't believe me, ask people who truly love their spouses and lost them to death. They do not stop loving their spouse because they are no longer with them, sharing a life with them. A person's body expires, but real love does not.
For me, Queenie's letter is a love letter to us all. It serves to remind us that life can be difficult and awkward and harsh, but there is beauty in the struggle. She also reminds us to enjoy all the beauty around us, from the sparkling sounds of laughter from our friends to the miracle of watching the trees sprout buds in spring.
One more thing, the author said when she wrote Harold's story, she did not intend to write another with these characters. However, she said many people wanted to know Queenie's story. Joyce said she was halfway through writing another novel when Queenie decided to be heard.
My heart is glad that Queenie convinced Joyce to tell her side of things. It is as it should be. There are, after all, two sides to every story. But, in this case, there could actually be three. I wonder what Maureen, Harold's wife, would have to say if we asked her?