by William Kuhn
Not so much Sarah Palin-style, but she has slipped her handlers. It started innocuously enough. Elizabeth (or “Little Bit” as she addresses herself) has been feeling rather blue. The monarchy has taken more than a few hits in the last several years. After a visit to her favorite horse, the stable girl loans The Queen a “hoodie,” as it has begun sleeting outside. This unusual attire, adorned with skull and crossbones, lends her instant anonymity, and she simply can’t resist embarking upon a small adventure. A jaunt to the local cheese shop segues into an impromptu trip to Scotland.
Back at the palace, panic ensues. A small band of The Queen’s most loyal staff brainstorm about where she could have gone. They’re determined to corral her back home before the press and public get wind of the fact that she’s missing and unattended.
This is non-fiction writer William Kuhn’s debut novel, and he’s off to a winning start. There have been many comparisons between Mrs. Queen Takes the Train and Alan Bennett’s perennial favorite, The Uncommon Reader. The comparisons are somewhat apt, and not even Kuhn is dodging them:
“’Did you read the one about The Queen becoming a reader?’ said the woman in spectacles to the young man at her side. ‘I did enjoy that one. So funny. And of course, being a reader myself, I liked that side of it.’”That’s the sort of awkward subject that can crop up when you’re a queen conversing with commoners in mufti. But actually, The Queen’s interactions with her subjects are gentle and surely eye-opening.
It’s all rather sweet. But Kuhn isn’t ignoring the real world as he spins his tale. There is social commentary on subjects that include racism, homelessness, terrorism, animal rights, and mental illness, making Kuhn’s novel slightly less twee than Bennett’s novella. I’m not one of those Americans infatuated with royalty, but I found it all rather charming. And who couldn’t find it in their heart to empathize with a queen?