Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
Maturity Level: I can’t remember, 3 maybe?
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An absolute delight of a debut novel by William Kuhn—author of “Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books”—”Mrs Queen Takes the Train” wittily imagines the kerfuffle that transpires when a bored Queen Elizabeth strolls out of the palace in search of a little fun, leaving behind a desperate team of courtiers who must find the missing Windsor before a national scandal erupts. Reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, this lively, wonderfully inventive romp takes readers into the mind of the grand matriarch of Britain’s Royal Family, bringing us an endearing runaway Queen Elizabeth on the town—and leading us behind the Buckingham Palace walls and into the upstairs/downstairs spaces of England’s monarchy.
Note: This review was originally posted in 2013 on my personal blog, Opinionated and Unabashed, and can be viewed here. I solemnly swear that it was my blog and I am not ripping off anyone else.
Also of note: This was not originally written as a proper review, more of a blog post, and was written 4 years ago, so it’s in a very different style than my usual. Honestly, re-reading it, I kind of like this long-winded style (what a shock…) and might have to go back to it.
I confess, I am obsessed with British literature. It seems like all of my favorite books hail from the other side of the pond, from just about every imaginable time period. Maybe I was born in the wrong country, but something about the British culture captivates me. I love the way the British speak, the way they write. Everything just seems so, I don’t know, old-fashioned. Even the most modern British books have a touch of the past in them.
Most recently I read a new novel by William Kuhn called Mrs. Queen Takes the Train. It originally caught my eye for an un-extraordinary reason: it’s jacket was white against a sea of dark books. But the title fascinated me. I couldn’t stop looking at it, and I would go back to the book again and again trying to decide what it meant. When I finally read the summary on the jacket I was hooked. In short, the Queen is feeling kind of down and plays hookie. The most odd assortment of royal staff imaginable must find her. Hilarity ensues.
What a concept! That the Queen is just like you and me and needs a day off every once in a while. That she would tire of being constantly surrounded by people bowing and curtsying and never telling her a word of what they really think. That she too would feel nostalgic for the better days, back when things were simpler. That she misses her family! I ate up every word.
William Kuhn’s previous books have all been biographies and histories. As you would expect from a biographer every aspect of the book was meticulously researched. At times the story dropped out altogether, and I learned more about the current monarch than I know about most of her predecessors combined. Yet, he still managed to give Her Majesty a voice as she looked back on her glory days, a voice you wouldn’t expect. She took me surprise, and I fell in love the old bird. I feel I know her as well as my own grandmother, maybe better.
Yet intertwined with the true life of the Queen (and her fictional thoughts and feelings) are the lives of her fictional staff. They come from all walks of life, shining light on the still-present class system of the British courts. Servants are servants, and courtiers are courtiers, and they do not mix. Except when they do. And not all is perfect behind the curtain. There is more to each character than meets the eye. As the characters develop through their search for the Queen I found myself falling in love with each of them too. From Lady Anne, a lady-in-waiting who is running out of money, to Rajiv, the British-born Indian who works in a cheese shop and is obsessed with pretty girls and taking photos with his cell phone, to Shirley, a life-long servant who is proud to work for the Queen and is old-fashioned in her beliefs (and mistrusts), every character is unique and surprising.
Throughout the book Kuhn infuses little moments of humor (like Her Majesty creating an account on “Miss Twitter”, or an elderly blind couple discussing with her Helen Mirren’s performance in The Queen) with the audacity of the situation to create a genuinely witty novel. I’m not sure which is more outrageous, the Queen wearing a scull and cross-bones hoodie, or her receiving free coffee with the homeless of Edinburgh. And both situations had me giggling on the inside, while the clever dialogue had me literally laughing out loud. Yet with all it’s humor, it turned out to be a very touching novel. The Queen’s insecurities reflected my own, that maybe I’m not good enough. And isn’t that really how we all feel? But, in the end, she learns to love herself the way she is, insecurities and all. She is the Queen of England, after all, and that has to count for something. And, well, she has a duty to do.
I could sing this book’s praises for a year. I was so surprised by how much I enjoyed it that I could not put it down. I don’t know if it will ever be a best seller, but Mrs. Queen has won a permanent place on my bookshelf. I know I will read and enjoy it for years to come. If you are reading, thank you Mr. Kuhn for your gift. I have rarely enjoyed a book more.