Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Every now and again you stumble across a quiet gem of a book, one so lovely that you don't want to close it and say goodbye to the characters, that you just want to savor with a smile on your face and the book clasped to your breast. I know that sounds like hyperbole but The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is in fact such a book. It is a delightful, satisfying treasure bursting with gentle truths.

Harold Fry is a quiet man, mid-sixties, recently retired, unassuming, without anything in his life that might be unusual or interesting. He and his wife Maureen, while still married, are living lives so separate and alone they might as well be nothing more than flatmates. Their son David's absence yawns loudly and Maureen blames this entirely on Harold. Their life might have continued down this track of quiet desperation and loneliness had Harold not gotten a letter one day.

The letter is from his former colleague Queenie Hennessey. They worked together twenty years ago and lost touch after Queenie did a good turn for Harold and left the brewery. Her letter is simply a thank-you for a long ago kindness Harold offered her and a goodbye as she is in the final stages of terminal cancer. Uncertain how to respond, Harold eventually pens a cordial response and sets off to post it. But when he reaches the first post box, it seems too easy to send and so he heads for the next one and then the next and the next. Eventually Harold, with the encouragement of a girl in a garage, decides to walk his way the 500 plus miles from his home in the south to the hospice in the north where he is certain Queenie will wait for him, will not die. And so his journey begins, unprepared and spontaneous, without even informing his wife of his plans.

Harold seems as surprised as anyone by his sudden determination to walk to Queenie. But he has faith in this unexpected pilgrimage and so he intends to do it, clad in his yachting shoes and his simple jacket. At first he is embarrassed mentioning his purpose to strangers but as time goes on, he finds that sharing his goal leads him to the best of other people. He passes through others' lives briefly as they do his, each touching the other in new and important ways. As Harold walks toward the dying Queenie, he has much time to reflect on his life, his failures as a husband and a father, on the sadness of his childhood, and the ways in which all of his experiences have shaped him. While he is on his physical journey, Maureen is on an emotional journey of her own, wondering how he could have just walked off and how their marriage and life had gone so sadly awry.

Both Harold and Maureen come to touching conclusions about marriage, family, life, faith, and love. And when Harold's pilgrimage attracts national media attention and followers, he ruminates on what is true and important and chooses his own path. Both Harold and Maureen are sympathtic characters who lead lives familiar to everyone. That they have their own separate, quiet epiphanies on their respective journeys is hopeful and lovely and offers a clear balance in the novel. As Harold suffers physically, the reader wants to reach into the pages and root him on, offer him a hand, and help him on this necessary pilgrimage. And as Maureen faces her part in their current lonely lives, the reader feels for her as well, wanting to give her a shoulder to ease her emotional burden for just a minute.

There are no explosions, no unexpected plot twists, no heart racing excitement here. What there is is a charming and slightly quirky man doing the best he knows how, finding gratitude in his life and searching for his way back to the happiness he once knew but that has missing for twenty years. If he does this by walking to keep Queenie alive so that he can say thank-you to her then this is a most important pilgrimage, one that will teach us all. I can't recommend this marvelous jewel of a novel enough. Wonderful and affecting, take a chance on Harold and his impossibly long walk. You won't regret it.

For more information about Rachel Joyce and the book visit her website. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I don't have a review copy but I'm really looking forward to reading this book. Not sure when that will be but I will read it!

  2. I really liked the cover to this book, but wasn't sure if I would actually like the book itself. It is not my general reading subject. I am glad you liked it, though. Maybe I will give it a try at some point.

  3. I am SO looking forward to reading this one myself!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  4. I am happy to have found your review. I just posted this on my new release list and am planning on reading it. Thank you for your detailed review.


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