The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

1096390Book -If you meet any of the following criteria, The Uncommon Reader may be the book for you:

  • You’re a Downton Abbey fan in need of your next Britfix.
  • You’re as likely as I am to coo over pictures of Prince George and Princess Charlotte on magazine covers in the supermarket.
  • You’d enjoy a novel (a novella, really) that feels a bit like historical fiction, but isn’t.
  • Books about the act of reading are your cup of tea, especially ones bursting with wry humor.
  • You’re looking for a book the exact right length to consume in one sitting with a handy mug of something warm.

The premise of The Uncommon Reader is unusual but simple: the Queen of England (the current one, Elizabeth II) has a fortuitous encounter with the local bookmobile and, after sixty-odd years of viewing reading as more a duty than a pleasure, unexpectedly finds literature taking over her life.  It’s hard to avoid the word ‘charming’ in describing this book, but even harder not to mention ‘funny.’  The Uncommon Reader describes a life that would, for most of us, be unimaginable, yet on the page it’s perfectly imagined.  Bennett’s fictionalized portrait of the queen is psychologically astute, believable and real, foreign from everyday experience and not sugar-coated but still sympathetic.  In fact, sympathy is a central theme of the book: our growing sympathy for the character we’re reading, even as she, through her own reading, expands her sympathy for everyone else–that is to say, us.

That mirroring between character and audience is not only clever, it’s emotionally satisfying.  Reading about personal growth through the act of reading means feeling just plain good about yourself when the story is over–which is the best reason I can think of to give The Uncommon Reader a look.