I’d been wanting to read Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry since it came out in 2012. It was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and seemed to be featured in every library, bookstore, and airport kiosk I saw. I was reminded of it recently when I went hiking with friends (only a paltry 3 miles) and decided to finally go for it.
Recent retiree Harold Fry is sitting down to breakfast, served by his cold and distant wife Maureen, when the morning post arrives, bearing with it a letter from his old friend and colleague Queenie Hennessey. Having not heard from her in twenty years, he is understandably shocked and dismayed to read that she is dying of cancer. He doesn’t know quite how to respond or react – heading down the street to post a letter to her in the mailbox, he passes it by in a daze as he recalls the past. Then, inspired by a young girl’s anecdote about her sick aunt, he decides he’ll keep walking 600 miles across the United Kingdom to Queenie’s hospice because as long as he walks, he believes that she will stay alive.
Harold left his house without a map, cell phone, or hiking boots, thus must rely on the kindness of strangers along the way. As he tells his story to the people he meets, it’s picked up by the press and he becomes something of a national hero, with numerous followers joining in on his pilgrimage. But for Harold, it’s simply the opportunity to do something meaningful with his life by righting his past wrongs, which are displayed to the reader in flashbacks. Miraculously, it seems like this journey also may finally be the thing that mends his troubled marriage to Maureen.
This book requires a huge stretch of plausibility to stomach, which mostly was doable for me. Except I (apparently a cynic) was surprised that Harold didn’t encounter much trouble from people on the road. Or, you know, a bear (do they have those there?). But I enjoy walking, so I totally get the self-reflection that can occur along the way.
Poor Harold needed it – he is very troubled by the inadequacies of his life both as a son to his mother and as a father to his son. He’s very self-aware of his own inaction, which makes the reader revel in his trek even more because it’s the single most adventurous and bold thing he’s done in his life. But his martyred attitude became a tad annoying as he kept recalling his failures but making the same mistakes, avoiding decision-making because he feared defeat and/or conflict. Additionally, I don’t think enough backstory to his and Maureen’s early years was given because it took me until near the conclusion to buy into their relationship, especially with the mysteries surrounding their son David’s separation from Harold and the favor that Queenie did for Harold. Unfortunately, since their love wasn’t as well fleshed out, and although I love old people in love, I didn’t find this novel as uplifting as I’d imagined it would be.
My heart did ache for Queenie, who seemed kind-hearted but strong as she bonded with Harold and endured the abuse of their awful misogynistic supervisor. Neighbor Rex was also adorable – despite his own despair about the loss of his wife, he truly cared about helping Maureen cope with Harold’s departure. Though Harold and Maureen are the protagonists, the supporting cast were the ones that really tugged my heartstrings. Shockingly, however, I didn’t cry over this one, even though I usually tear up at the drop of the hat
As a result of my emotional detachment, I believe this was a good novel, but not a great one. Its moments of charm were unsustained throughout the whole narrative, though I grant that the ending was both shocking and (bitter)sweet. There’s only so much one could read about walking and the glories of the English countryside, though I imagine the British would find this more appealing than the average American, even an Anglophile like myself.