I fell in love with Harold Fry in Rachel Joyce’s novel about his Unlikely Pilgrimage. How could I not? Here was a quiet, non-adventurous man setting off to walk the length of England to see his old friend Queenie Hennessy before she dies. I can never forget that scene: Harold on the phone to the nurse at Queenie’s hospice, saying “As long as I walk, she must live. Please tell her this time I won’t let her down.”
And now we get to see him through Queenie’s eyes. In this companion novel, Joyce tells us Queenie’s story, partly how she waits for Harold to arrive, and also partly how she lived before the whole pilgrimage began. Love Song is a wonderful novel, one that may make you tear up, and one that will make you fall more in love with Harold and Queenie than ever before. I read it in a weekend and though I didn’t cry like I thought I would, I did enjoy returning to Harold and Queenie’s world. I didn’t like it as much as Unlikely Pilgrimage, and I think it’s because this was a dose of reality that, for me, took out some of the charm of the earlier book.
One of the things I loved about Unlikely Pilgrimage is how Joyce refrained from the typical love story and kept the relationship between Harold and Queenie purely platonic. I was fascinated by the stocky, plain featured woman who’d made such an impact on a man’s life without any romantic feelings involved. In this book, we find out that Queenie was in love with Harold since they first met. They still are friends, and being in love does not make Queenie any weaker as a character, but the story just felt more traditional, and that disappointed me. I also wish she’d somehow moved on beyond Harold, not necessarily falling in love with anyone else, and again, there’s nothing wrong with being in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, but it just made me feel sad.
Another thing that I was too caught up to think about while reading Unlikely Pilgrimage was how nonsensical Harold’s plan was. While walking with Harold, the idea of walking across England seemed romantic, a true giving of oneself. Now, with Love Song, reading as patient after patient dies while waiting alongside Queenie, I ended up asking myself multiple times why he didn’t just take a train. Harold’s pilgrimage inspires Queenie’s fellow patients, and several of them found waiting for him as a reason to go on living and celebrating. So it’s still a beautiful act. It’s just that, coupled with the harsh reality of people dying while they wait, the impracticalities of the plan kept coming into focus for me.
That being said, there are a lot of other things to love in this book. For example, we get to meet Harold and Maureen’s son. A focal point of tragedy in the first book, David becomes a more complex, well-rounded character in this one. There’s a lot going on with him that we never really get to fully explore, and a much richer, more complicated family life that we didn’t realize until now.
We also learn a bit more about Queenie’s life, and Joyce teases us with details of a complicated pre-Harold past. I wish I’d learned more about it — what kind of child was she, and who was this man who screwed up her life before she took the factory job and met Harold?
I also love the other patients in Queenie’s hospice. They are such a colourful cast of characters, and each death dims the story the slightest bit. I especially love the description of their drinks — nutrient-rich shakes that taste disgusting despite supposedly having flavours like vanilla and raspberry. I remember having to drink a concoction once for a medical procedure — it was supposed to taste like strawberry and it kinda did, but it was also like gulping down cement and was utterly disgusting overall. I’m sure their shakes were much more vile, but that concoction was what I was thinking of when I read about the patients raising their cups in a toast and celebrating Harold’s pilgrimage with a serving they deem extra delicious. Such scenes feel poignant, and just because of what I once had to drink, it was those party scenes that remain most memorable to me.
Queenie’s story is told through the conceit of a second, longer letter to Harold Fry, where she confesses everything — her feelings for him, her role in David’s life, the true story of how she and Harold first met, and so on. I have mixed feelings about the ending. On one hand, there was a twist that seemed unnecessary and confused me more than anything. What was the point of that? On the other hand, there’s an added touch of poignancy to that twist that I kinda really liked. So, quite fitting for a tale of such complex human emotions, I finished the book not knowing quite how I felt about it.
Overall though, I did enjoy the book. Joyce’s writing is as beautiful as ever, and her gift for making characters leap right off the page remains strong. If you love Harold Fry, do take a moment to see him through Queenie’s eyes.
Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.