The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
By Rachel Joyce
Random House, July 24, 2012
336 Pages
ISBN-13: 978-0812993295
Got it from: The Library

I knew as soon as I heard of this book, as soon as I saw the cover, that I would have to read this book. My first impressions were that it would be a sweet, lovely, very English diversion for a day or so.

Boy, was I wrong.

Well, not exactly. It was all those things. It was also just so. much. more. Lemme ‘splain.

Harold Fry has recently retired and seems to be at loose ends. He lives in a lovely little English village with his wife, Maureen. They have been married for a long time, but are really just going through the motions. They tiptoe around each other, give each other the usual pleasantries, they eat together, and go to bed apart. Maureen is literally irritated by everything Harold does. She doesn’t even really like the way he breathes. So you can imagine, his days…they are painful. And they are all the same. They are just gliding through life. Barely living it.

One morning, Harold gets a letter from an old co-worker. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice. And she is dying.

Harold writes a quick condolence card, a “I hate to hear that” kind of missive, tells Maureen he’ll be right back, he’s just taking this note to the mailbox, and out he walks. He makes it to the box, sees it’s a lovely day, and decides to walk to the next box. And the next. And then, well, why not just walk to the post office?

But then he keeps going. And going. And going. He decides he’s going to walk the note all the way to Queenie Hennessy. All the way across the country. Still in his yachting shoes, his light coat and trousers, he will walk across the country. To keep Queenie alive.

Maureen is not happy. Understandably. And also not.

What follows is the what I wasn’t expecting. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is many things; a study of marriage, love, fidelity, friendship, and humanity. Harold’s walk introduces the shy man to friendly faces, helpful people, a few crazies, and so much more. He has to learn to take help, which is so hard for this independent, lonely man. He face many hard truths he has avoided his whole life. And his wife, Maureen does the same. She learns to take help from unexpected, and at times unwanted, places and also faces some hard truths. By the end of the book, I was rooting for this couple like I seldom root for couples in romance/YA novels. I came to love Harold and Maureen dearly and this bittersweet novel. It left me smiling, with bittersweet tears sliding down my cheeks.

The writing. Oh, the writing. It was so lovely. Some bits I liked:

People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.

The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time.

Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.

He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others.

Beginnings could happen more than once or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before. He had faced his shortcomings and overcome them and so the real business of walking was happening only now.

I better stop there, or I’ll quote the whole book. Okay, one more.

He must have driven this way countless times, and yet he had no memory of the scenery. He must have been so caught up in the day’s agenda, and arriving punctually at their destination, that the land beyond the car had been no more than a wash of one green, and a backdrop of one hill. Life was very different when you walked through it.

Isn’t that so true? We get so caught up in our day to day living, that we forget to look at the scenery. Ironically, this is one thing I love about Instagram. I’m always looking for an interesting picture to share with my friends, and am therefore observing “the scenery” and in turn, capturing the memory.

Needless to say, I completely recommend reading this book. And also, slowing down and “look at the scenery.”

18 thoughts on “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

  1. I’ve passed on this book several times, but something about your review has made me want to reconsider. I knew the basics but what you describe about the themes and thoughts of the characters sounds a very worthwhile read. I like that you included your thoughts on rooting for the relationship, because knowing that that is a strong point is all the more appealing.

  2. Gosh darn it, Heather! I really thought this was a book I could pass by; really, I did. Till now. That’s what I get for reading your reviews, huh? Luckily for me, I’ll never learn. 😛

  3. Oh, how I loved this book — and I just smiled my way through all the quotes you shared! It was so lovely, moving and captivating. I had a hunch I might enjoy it, but it literally just blew me away. It’s one of the few physical books I’ve kept after reading . . . I just couldn’t part with it!

  4. I know what you mean. I thought I would like this book; I did not expect to LOVE it. I bookmarked so many quotes when I was reading it, including most of the ones you shared here. (Unfortunately I lost all my bookmarks because I was reading an ebook checked out from the library; guess I’m just going to have to read it again!) What a beautiful book.

  5. I have been drawn to this book since it came out because I like the cover… I am not entirely sure if the story is for me, but I am going to find out at some point!

  6. I really liked this book too! I thought that Harold was lovely as a character and Joyce beautifully showed how loneliness is not contingent on being alone.

  7. Ok, ok. I’ve passed this one up several times because of the hype, and truthfully I thought it would be too sweet or cute or something. But you have stoked my interest!!! Great review, Heatheroo!

  8. I picked this one up for my stepmom for Christmas and I’m so thrilled every time I see someone likes it (am I the only one who recommends books she hasn’t read?). I might have to pick up a copy for me as well–I’ve been craving a book with gorgeous writing.

  9. I listened to this one on audiobook and I was definitely sniffling through some parts! I reacted so poorly to the people who took up Harold’s cause, and I don’t know how he stayed so patient with them. I also was worried that Maureen would come out to be a shrew of some sort, but she really was wonderful.

  10. Such a lovely book! I just finished the audio of The Love Song of Queenie Hennessey and now I want to reread THIS one and do it all over again.

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