Genre: Contemporary Fiction | Diverse Rep: Jamaican-British (#OwnVoices) | My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book through my work. While I am grateful for the opportunity to review, this in no way influences my opinion of the book.
CW: racism, misogyny, unsafe sex, anxiety & panic attacks.
When her long-term white boyfriend decides he wants “a break” from their relationship, 25-year-old Queenie Jenkins struggles to keep her life together. She’s lost focus on her work as a journalist and she can’t seem to stop herself from engaging in unsafe, unfulfilling sex with a slew of hateful white guys. Through the support of her loyal group of friends, Queenie must dig deep inside herself to find the answer to who she really is and who she wants to become.
Queenie’s voice and the overall construction of the novel give her story a distinctly realistic and contemporary feel.
From the very first scene, when Queenie undergoes a sexual health exam and discovers that she’s had a miscarriage, I knew I was invested in this story. Not only is Queenie’s voice incredibly relatable, from her experiences with men to her struggles in friendship and work, but she’s also just plain funny at various points. This is one of those laugh-and-cry type books.
I really appreciated the way text message conversations and even emails were included throughout the story.
Rather than detracting from what’s going in the narration, these conversations serve to move the story forward in time and provide relevant details that the author would’ve had to tell the reader otherwise. I’ve read entire books told in this modern epistolary form, but I’ve yet to read a book that includes texts in such a productive way.
You get a real sense of each character’s voice through their messages as well. One of the most laugh-out-loud aspects of the book involved the ongoing text conversation between Queenie and her three best girlfriends, which she dubs “the Corgis.” Through these messages, we see the roles played by Queenie’s friends, from her two white friends, one from work and one from college, to her black childhood best friend. These friendships are complicated and occasionally even problematic, but that just adds to the realism of the story.
We also get glimpses into Queenie’s past in flashbacks related to her relationship with her boyfriend Tom.
Although at first these flashbacks threw me out of the story as I had to figure out where they took place in time, each of these scenes serves to further our understanding of Queenie’s character and her struggles in the present day. In the first half of the story, the flashbacks serve to reveal why Tom really wasn’t that great of a boyfriend to Queenie; in the second half, the flashbacks are clues to the puzzle of Queenie’s mental health.
It should be stated that Queenie can be an extremely frustrating character to read.
At 25, she’s screwing up her life left and right. Her boyfriend Tom wants a break (although it becomes clear early on that it’s more likely a break-up than a break), likely because Queenie pushed him away through the majority of their three-year relationship. As she mourns the loss of this relationship, Queenie loses focus at her job more and more, and her relationship with her friends becomes pretty much solely focused on Queenie’s problems. By far the most problematic aspect of Queenie’s character, though, is her sex life.
For much of the book, Queenie sleeps with all the wrong men—and she knows it.
Maybe I’ve just been reading too much YA lately, but I can’t remember the last time I read a book that talked this openly—from the beginning—about sexual health. Queenie finds guys through dating apps, and even through her workplace, that treat her like absolute trash. She somehow forgets to use protection every time. There are graphic depictions of one man in particular who refuses to be touched by Queenie after sex, treating her like a sex toy rather than a person. All of these (white) men are incredibly racist in their treatment of Queenie. It seems that they want to date white women, but fuck black women.
While I can’t relate to the racial aspect of these relationships, other reviewers have expressed the relatable nature of these experiences. As someone who made some pretty poor dating choices in her early twenties, my heart broke for Queenie because I remember what it felt like to respect myself so little that I let men treat me like dirt. I also remember how easy it was to let a guy convince me not to worry about protection—quite frankly, there’s so little at stake for them in that scenario.
Despite it being so hard to read, and despite her many horrible decisions, I don’t feel that Queenie is nonredeemable.
As the novel progresses, so does Queenie. She acknowledges her mistakes, both in how she’s treated her friends, how she’s lost focus at the best job she’s ever had, and how she’s allowed men to use and abuse her.
Most importantly, Queenie seeks help. She realizes that her anxiety symptoms are interfering with her life, that she can’t put her life back together on her own. She moves back in with her grandparents and she shows up for therapy—despite the fact that her family doesn’t acknowledge mental health as a real issue.
For a 300-page book, Queenie tackles a lot of major issues.
As a Jamaican-British woman, Queenie encounters a lot of racism. I can’t even fathom the reality of life for women of color in our world. Queenie is fetishized by white men, accused of being aggressive by strangers for merely speaking her mind, and constantly glossed over at work when she brings really solid ideas to the table. At one point, a white guy argues with her about the merits of the Black Lives Matter movement. Reading this, I was blown away by how frustrating it is for Queenie to just…exist in her space every single day.
I loved the complex portrayal of her family as well.
Queenie’s aunt is incredibly religious and judgmental, while her cousin is more supportive and understanding of Queenie’s struggles. Her grandparents have really strict expectations for cleanliness and don’t really express their love openly, but it’s apparent that everything they do comes out of love. Despite the fact that her family doesn’t believe in mental health issues, they ultimately come to support Queenie’s process, which was so beautiful to see.
The portrayal of Queenie’s slow slog toward recovery from her repressed trauma and anxiety was by far the most powerful element of this book.
This isn’t a book where things happen. It’s a book where a character grows and becomes stronger than before. I loved watching Queenie at first resist therapy before discovering that yes, coping mechanism for anxiety can help, and yes, she needs to repair the relationship with her mother and acknowledge the trauma she went through. Although my mental health experiences are quite different from Queenie’s, I was brought to tears by her conversations with her therapist.
I’ve read a lot of reviews of this book, and it seems like a lot of people couldn’t get past Queenie’s reckless sexual relationships and other self-sabotaging behavior. For me, these elements were completely realistic, and although they were difficult to read, Queenie’s progress in the last third of the book made everything so worth it.
Overall, do I recommend?
Queenie isn’t just a book for black readers, or readers with anxiety. Queenie is the diverse 20-something journey we’ve all been waiting for. Regardless of your age, racial background, or country of origin, I highly recommend you check out this book.