In chasing after her rowdy dog-pack one day, the Queen discovers them barking at a bookmobile, parked outside the kitchen at Windsor. Entering to apologize for the din, the Queen meets Norman Seakins, a young man from the kitchen whose primary interest is in gay books and photography. Feeling obligated to borrow a book, the Queen selects a novel, intending to return it the following week. Almost immediately, palace life changes. That night, with the president of France seated beside her at dinner, the Queen abandons her usual safe conversation and remarks, "I've been longing to ask you about Jean Genet...Homosexual and jailbird, was he nevertheless, as bad as he was painted?"
As the Queen expands her reading under the direction of Norman, she becomes less interested in day-to-day activities, even arriving late to the opening of Parliament because she forgot her book for the coach ride and had to have it brought to her. She no longer keeps to tried and true conversational subjects (the traffic on the road to the palace), as she converses with the public and meets honored guests, and she finds people becoming confused and tongue-tied. Dinner conversations no longer have the pleasant, easy-going atmosphere that once made invitations to the palace so memorable. When these issues continue for over a year, the Prime Minister determines to take action.
In this delightful novella, Alan Bennett (Beyond the Fringe, Talking Heads, and most recently, The History Boys), explores reading, writing, and their effects on our lives as he develops this imaginative and warmly humorous scenario. Though the eponymous "uncommon reader" is the Queen, her reactions to her reading (and other people's responses to her as a result of her reading) are so true-to-life and so plausible that Bennett accomplishes a feat rarely even attempted--he makes the reader identify with the Queen and root for her success as a bibliophile.
Bennett's humor depends on the fine line he creates between reality and absurdity, and his explorations into the absurd are so close to what might be, or what we might wish, that the reader sees, ironically, the absurdity of reality itself. As he posits an alternative "reading lifestyle" for the Queen, he makes the Queen seem human--and connected with her reading public in new ways. Bennett keeps the humor low-key, evoking images which allow the reader to discover, unassisted, the ironies which are so hilarious throughout the novella. And just at the point at which the reader might wonder how Bennett will ever end this wonderful romp, he surprises us with an absolutely perfect ending, which takes place on the Queen's eightieth birthday. Like the dramatist that he is, Bennett knows exactly when to stop. And does. Mary Whipple