Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
In this sentimental novel, retired brewery salesman Harold Fry lives a quiet life of routine and avoidance in a strained but long-lasting marriage with his wife Maureen — until a letter arrives out of the blue and changes everything. The letter is from a woman named Queenie Hennessy, a former coworker whom Harold has not seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie writes to inform Harold that she is dying of cancer, and Harold — moved to tears — decides to write back.
But something odd happens along the way to the mailbox. Harold starts to feel that his response is inadequate, and so continues walking to the next mailbox, and then the next, while he thinks about what to say. After a random encounter with a young women working at a gas station, Harold becomes convinced that if he only has faith, he can make Queenie survive. And what better way to demonstrate his faith than to walk to see Queenie — in a town five hundred miles away. Harold sets out in his trousers, shirt, tie, and yachting shoes, with no maps and no cell phone, and starts his unlikely pilgrimage.
Harold is singularly unprepared and unqualified for such an adventure, and yet he perseveres:
Harold’s heel stung and his back ached, and now the soles of his feet were beginning to burn. Even the smallest flint caused him pain; he had to keep stopping to remove a shoe and shake it empty. From time to time, he also found that his legs buckled for no apparent reason, as if they had been jellied, causing him to stumble. His fingers were throbbing but maybe that was because they were not used to being swung back and forth in a downward direction. And yet, despite all this, he felt intensely alive. A lawn mower started up in the distance and he laughed out loud.
As he walks, he contemplates his life. His marriage to Maureen started out full of love and excitement, but the two have by now withered into a pair of cross-tempered people living around each other, not with each other. Harold thinks about his unremarkable career and his failures as a father and husband. At the heart of his problems with Maureen, it seems, is the prickly, uncomfortable relationship between Harold and their only son, David. We receive only hints at first, but over the course of the novel, we piece together more and more bits of information about David’s troubled youth and his ultimate estrangement from his parents, for which Maureen bitterly blames Harold.
Meanwhile, Harold walks, encountering strangers on the road and in the many towns through which he passes. People show him kindness, and in turn, Harold offers what he can, which is mainly his attention and a sympathetic ear. Little by little, he starts to revise his opinion of himself and his interpretation of the key events in his life. Harold starts to realize that he can make a difference, both by giving and by receiving, and his spontaneous, poorly-planned trek to see Queenie becomes more of a spiritual quest, and eventually, a movement that captures the popular imagination of the entire country.
It’s not until the final chapters that we find out why Queenie matters so much and what exactly happened to destroy Harold and Maureen’s previously happy life together. Let me tell you, when the secret of their past is finally revealed, it’s a doozy. (Unfortunately for me, I read this book on a plane — and there may have been some surreptitious wiping of tears going on…)
I found Harold Fry to be a thoroughly readable novel, sweeping me along from chapter to chapter through the various landmarks and roadways of Harold’s journey. Harold and Maureen are both good people who have suffered loss and deprivation, and it’s hard not to root for them. Harold’s pilgrimage is quixotic and seemingly random — after all, what makes him think that his walk can make the slightest bit of difference in a woman’s fight against terminal cancer? Yet, Harold is committed to his sense that he’s made a pledge and that, in seeing it through, he’s keeping Queenie alive.
Here’s my slight quibble with the book: Harold’s walk really makes no sense. If it’s so important for him to see Queenie, why not hop in a car or a train? (In fact, quite a few people suggest this to him along the way.) It does become clear that Harold himself is gaining a tremendous amount from his pilgrim’s journey, finding an inner peace and certainty that he’d lacked all these years. He believes that Queenie will wait for him, but he sure doesn’t make it easy, making detours, getting lost, and refusing comforts that might speed him along his way. It’s almost as if he doesn’t really want to reach his goal — the journey becomes the point, not the arrival. But as the key motivating factor in the main character’s actions, the cause and effect — walking = Queenie lives — doesn’t hold up to much poking. Likewise, Harold’s entire decision to walk is based on one brief (and imperfectly understood) conversation, and his certainty about his quest occurs so quickly that we as readers don’t have the opportunity to fully buy into his mission or even truly understand his rationale for doing it.
Still, logical or not, it’s the pilgrimage itself that matters. It’s part meditation, part atonement for a life full of missed connections and poorly communicated desires and emotions, and a very blatant metaphor for a man embarking on the road to change. Harold is aware that people may not understand, may even mock or think him too old for what he’s trying to do, but what counts is how Harold experiences the journey. Harold Fry is a man who sets out to make a difference, and somehow manages to prove that you’re never too old to start fresh and make a change.
It must be said, too, that for those of a more classical/literary bent, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry can be read as a modern version of the hero’s journey. The plot kicks off with a call to adventure, Harold experiences challenges and temptations, meets helpers and mentors, and goes through stages of revelation, transformation, and atonement before he is able to return to his regular life. If you’re so inclined, it’s an interesting exercise to match up elements of Harold’s pilgrimage with the hero’s journey and see how well it fits.
I had some misgivings, as I’ve said, about the fundamental purpose and thought process behind Harold’s pilgrimage — but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t moved by it. We see a man doing what should be impossible, and that’s a wonderful thing. The relationship between Harold and Maureen feels very real, and Harold’s encounters along the road are funny and poignant, each offering a snippet of another life touched and perhaps changed by this ordinary man’s choices and actions.
Harold Fry is well-written and quick-paced, so that it was easy to polish it off during one concentrated day of reading. There’s plenty of food for thought here, and I was intrigued especially by the novel’s portrait of a marriage’s deterioration, which seemed spot-on in its depiction of the small hurts, misunderstandings, and judgments that if left uncorrected, can cause permanent damage.
I was afraid that this book would be mawkish or trite, but despite veering dangerously close to Hallmark-card sentiments in a few spots, overall The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a thought-provoking, sweet but sad look at a life and at second chances.
Title: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: 2012
Genre: Contemporary fiction