A royal fable celebrating the transformative properties (and a few of the unsettling consequences) of reading as an obsession.
In a country of commoners, the uncommon reader is the Queen. She has never been a reader, because reading isn’t something that “one” (as she invariably refers to herself) does. Yet an unlikely incident involving her dogs and a mobile library making its weekly appearance outside Buckingham Palace moves her to borrow a book. And then another. And another, until reading has become her life’s focus. Though the prolific Bennett is better known in America for his plays and screenplays (his Tony Award–winning play, The History Boys, was made into a movie in 2007), his subtle wit and tonal command show why he is so beloved in his native Britain. Yet this slight novella feels padded, because once he puts his plot into motion—the Queen reads, reading changes the Queen, others are uncomfortable with the changes—he doesn’t really have anywhere to take it except in circles, as it moves toward what might be a surprise ending. There are some funny bits: her questioning of the president of France about Jean Genet (of whom he hasn’t a clue) and the disdain she develops for the “perpetually irritating Henry James.” She also enjoys a lovely visit with one of her literary subjects, Alice Munro. Perhaps the keenest insight here concerns her difficulty with Jane Austen, whose novels pivot so frequently on class distinctions that the Queen herself has never experienced. Those who love reading will recognize the process of the Queen’s enrapturing, how one book inevitably leads to another, and so many others, and that the richness of the reading life will always be offset by the recognition that time grows shorter as the list of books grows longer. Yet this is ultimately a breezy afternoon’s read, one that doesn’t seem like it took all that much more effort to write.
If, as the Queen discovers, reading is “a muscle” that she has “seemingly developed,” this novella reads like light calisthenics rather than heavy lifting.