Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce


Rating: 4 / 5

Harold Fry is newly retired, and his days are rote and uneventful.  One day out of the blue he receives a letter from a co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, he knew two decades ago.  In the letter, Queenie states that she has inoperable cancer, and thanks Harold for his friendship 20 years ago.  His response is a quick one line, and when he goes to drop it off, realizes that the mail has already been picked up at that location, so decides to walk to the next closest post office.  Thus, Harold Fry’s pilgrimage begins, as after a couple of stops at various post offices only to realize he is too late, he decides, with the help of a stranger, that he should just walk to hospice where Queenie resides.  It is over 500 miles away, near Scotland, while Harold’s home is at the southern end, near the English Channel.  But Harold figures that if he just puts one step in front of the other and keeps on walking, he has faith that Queenie will hang on and wait for him.

Ill-prepared for such a long journey (he’s not even wearing a pair of sneakers when he sets off), and without telling his wife Maureen, Harold sets out to try to save to Queenie.  The pilgrimage gives Harold time to reflect on his life, where things went wrong with his wife and son, and also end of his friendship with Queenie.  Will Harold’s journey be enough to save Queenie?  And will Maureen forgive his abrupt departure to see another woman?

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a surprise.  I’ve read good reviews about it, but reading the summary, it didn’t seem like a book I would enjoy as much as I did.  The premise is straight forward; Harold decides that instead of posting a letter to his one time friend and co-worker, he sets out to hand deliver the letter, having faith that if he just sent postcards along the way, Queenie would know he was walking to see her, and just keep living.  But like the adage, ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ this novel is moving because of the insight Harold gains when he is out in the world alone.  There is little to do besides walk, and with much of the time alone, he is forced to think about his past, the mistakes he’s made, and the regrets he’s had to live with but has kept repressed.

Early on, it is apparent that the relationship between Maureen and Harold, and Harold and their son David, is not optimal, but not why.  Throughout the journey, the reader learns about the events that transpired, and how the relationships became so fragile and distant.  Though Harold and Maureen were very much in love at the beginning of their courtship and marriage, in recent years both have fallen into an uncomfortable silence that, with time, ended up being the norm.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is not a depressing read though.  It is mildly absurd that a recently retired, out-of-shape 65-year old man, who has never walked more than a mile at a time, believes that he can walk over 500 miles to save a long lost friend.  That and the menagerie of characters he meets on the way bring moments of levity that stop the story from becoming grim and depressing.

In The End: I highly recommend The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It is a sweet story about making amends, seeking redemption, and the fact that it is never too late to being life anew.

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