“Compelling and rewarding, tender and funny, it portrays family relationships at a time of year that should be joyous but is so often tangled and painful, reminding us that there is always a bigger story behind the one we first see.”
Rachel Joyce has become one of my favourite authors in recent years. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, and Perfect were all a pleasure to read. So I was excited to see a new collection of modern day Christmas stories by her in the bookstore! I had to buy it and gobble it up like turkey. In the foreword she said that some of the characters and situations were built from bits and pieces cut from her novels. Happily these are not saccharine sweet Christmas stories. They are freshly funny and human–no perfection in sight!
The collection has seven separate stories, but they are all loosely connected with characters from one story randomly popping up in others. I love it when authors do that! (Maeve Binchy did the same thing in The Lilac Bus many years ago – if you know of others, please let me know).
These stories are so easy to get into (something I appreciate in a short story!) and showcase Joyce’s skill for conveying great things in simple everyday situations…a woman finds a cure for a broken heart where she least expects it; a husband and wife build their son a bicycle and, in the process, deconstruct their happy marriage; freak weather brings the airport to a standstill on Christmas Day.
This is a companion volume to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce’s first book, which was long-listed for the Man Booker in 2012. Harold Fry is the amazing story of a man who suddenly decides to walk across the country to visit a dying colleague (Queenie) who he hasn’t seen in years. The premise may be twee but the books aren’t. Joyce has a gift for spinning an engaging story and conveying profound emotions in a real and simply unaffected way. Although Queenie is the focal point in Harold’s story and the reason for his pilgrimage, we actually learn very little about her. In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy some questions are answered and Queenie embarks on a journey of her own, while telling her story to atone for what she believes she has done. I loved both books and they would be excellent to read in tandem.
Queenie is terminally ill, residing in a hospice, when Harold decides to visit, asking her to hold on and wait until he gets there. I loved the description of the hospice, as loving and caring a place as many real hospices are. I loved the line she was given when she was admitted there, “You are not here to die, you are here to live until you die.” Queenie meets a colourful cast of characters at the hospice that join her in cheering Harold on as he makes his way across the country. I don’t know how I feel about the twist in the ending. Will need to talk about that with someone who has read this, but I can’t say what it is without spoilers! I liked the little surprise in one way because all along I thought I knew what the ending would be from Fry! Though this parallel companion attempts to complete the story, perhaps Joyce leaves us with a more real view of humanity. Life is messy and imperfect, full of pain and regret, but there is also plenty of beauty, love, and joy.
Rachel Joyce is a talented storyteller. I also really enjoyed her book Perfect.
Readers who liked The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will not be disappointed by this one, although it is very different. It’s sort of sad yet satisfying at the same time. And there is no need to read Harold Fry first.
Joyce’s books are thoughtful and gentle but can evoke deep feelings and produce an examination of one’s own life, loves, and shortcomings. The title of the book is….er, well, perfect. That single word kept echoing through my mind as I turned pages and even long after I’d put the book down.
In all of us, to some degree, is the striving for perfection…that unattainable ideal conjured in our own minds or suggested by the lies of standards set by advertising or the media. We want to be neater, slimmer, stronger, faster, more efficient, less forgetful…fill in the blanks for yourself. But that thinking is so flawed and does so much damage to our souls. Because it simply is not possible.
“Two seconds are huge. It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening. It’s very dangerous.”
The story begins with the decision in 1972 to add two seconds to a leap year in order to balance clock time with the movement of the earth. This actually was done, but never repeated since. The author toys with existential dread and what could happen in two extra seconds that might alter the future forever.
Byron’s mother, late on the morning school run, makes a devastating mistake. Byron’s perfect world is shattered. Were those two extra seconds to blame? Can what follows ever be set right?
A great book club choice with much to ponder and discuss.
When Harold Fry leaves his house to post a letter, he has no idea that he will not return for 87 days or that he will walk 627 miles all the way across the country! With only the shoes on his feet and the clothes he is wearing, Harold embarks on a quiet gentle journey of self-discovery. His quest is to save someone’s life by sheer faith, hope and determination alone.
On a postcard to Queenie Hennessy at St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, is written this:
“I am on my way. All you have to do is wait. Because I am going to save you, you see. I will keep on walking and you must keep on living. “ Harold Fry
This book is a simple story with some beautiful insights into human nature with all of its joys, vulnerabilities, sorrows, regrets and triumphs. Harold and Maureen are stuck in a rut where nothing changes and they hardly even speak to each other anymore. She criticizes everything he does and he is bored and unlikely to participate in any kind of adventure. And then Harold gets a letter in the mail.
Another great pick for book club! I was inspired by characters who are open to growth and change. The book caused me to reflect on my own life, love, and longings. It’s a journey I will not soon forget.