The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce came out early this summer and I had just finished reading it when it was listed as a good summer read by MacLean’s and Chatelaine and Oprah.
Readers who enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows a few years ago are going to like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry as well.
Our hero, Harold Fry, sets of on his unlikely pilgrimage one day in early summer, after receiving a letter from Qeenie, a woman he worked with many years earlier. Learning that Queen is dying, Harold finds himself overwhelmed with memories. He responds to Queenie’s letter with sympathy and sorrow and sets out to post the letter. He has left home without his cell phone, wearing his old yachting shoes, planning to walk to the nearest post box.
For reasons that are unclear at the beginning of the novel he owes a debt of gratitude to Queenie. Also unclear is why Harold gradually and without any planning decides that he must hand deliver his letter – believing that, in doing so, he will prolong Queenie’s life for the time it will take him to walk from the south to the north of England, to her bedside.
Harold has been married to his wife, Maureen, for some forty years. Thiers was a love that began when they were young, remained strong through the early years of parenthood – and for some reason, that we learn only much later, collapsed some twenty years ago. Harold is now retired and he and Maureen live together, but sleep apart. A deep rift occurred that has taken from them the love they once shared.
Harold simply walks away, and as he begins his unlikely pilgrimage to see Queenie once more, he re-examines his past and the part that Queenie played in his life at a time when he desperately needed her help. The farther he is from home the more Harold thinks about Maureen, their life together, and what pulled them apart. He thinks a great deal about their son, David, and his troubled teenage years. Harold stops regularly to call Maureen from phone booths to assure her that he is well.
Maureen, at home alone, also thinks of the past, her marriage and her motherhood. She thinks about her love for Harold, as the longer he is away the more she realizes he is still the man she loves in spite of their divided loyalties.
Harold is compelled to tell people he meets along the way that he is walking to see a dying woman. He is surprised to realize that he is not the only person suffering over past sorrows, that everyone has a story, that the world is made up of people putting one foot in front of the other, each day, in their own way.
At some point Harold’s walk becomes a news story and his private need to walk becomes a sensational human interest story followed by the media and people all over England.
There were times when I felt this novel was becoming repetitive and lost my attention lapsed, but there was a need to know how it all ends. It was worth continuing and the conclusion is both surprising and satisfying. Rachel Joyce does an excellent job of portraying all of her characters with compassion. Harold and Maureen have the readers empathy, as do the secondary characters of Rex, the recently widowed man who lives next door to Harold and Maureen, and the many people that Harold meets on his long walk.