What a lovely title for a book – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I really enjoy a title like that, although some people might find it clunky or too much of a mouthful. It’s possible that one of the reasons I like it so much is that it contains an adverb, which is something I feel rather strongly about. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is so compelling about this title; it just has all the right elements to spark my curiosity.
The book was recommended to me by Goodreads because of some similarities to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, such as the setting, the qualities of the narrator, and certain character relationships. Upon finding a copy at the library, I saw that there was a brief endorsement of the book by the author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson. That sealed the deal for me.
The premise held much potential. The author, Rachel Joyce, created a narrator who is rather unheroic as protagonists go. Harold Fry receives some bad news from an estranged friend, a letter that informs him of her ailing health, and he is thrust back into full awareness of reality, awakened from the torpor in which he has been spending his retirement. The letter has a powerful effect on him, but he has no idea what he can do, or how to respond. He writes a reply to his friend, Queenie Hennessy, and heads off toward town to mail it straightaway.
This errand does not go as intended, simply because Harold is unconvinced that the letter is adequate, and he continues to walk to the next postal drop box while he mulls it over. This happens again, and again, until he finds himself in a conversation with a young woman that brings a sudden clarity to Harold’s thoughts: he must go to his friend in person, and he must send her a message telling her that she should wait for him, that she should continue to live until he arrives. Harold decides to continue walking, without his cellphone, without a change of clothes, without a map. Queenie is hundreds of miles away, but he has a strange certainty that if he just walks to her, he can save her.
Harold’s journey makes up the bulk of the novel. During his walk, he finds the time to sift through his memories, rethink his decisions, and reflect upon his relationships. It’s a very difficult time for him, emotionally and physically. He experiences a wide range of human interaction, and discovers that strangers can be surprising sources of kindness and generosity. It’s very interesting to read about Harold’s revelations, but ultimately, he has led an unfulfilled life, and with each new piece of backstory that the author provides, the story becomes sadder and sadder.
This was not a bad book by any means, but I felt a bit tricked as I neared the end. I had gotten the impression that it would be lighthearted, uplifting, and humorous. Instead, I found myself quite upset as it became clear that most of the unhappy things in the lives of Ms. Joyce’s characters could not be fixed. There was some resolution at the end of the story, but it was not enough to counterbalance the tragedy.
Perhaps only because of my expectations, I could not like this book as much as I had hoped. I had been looking for inspiration, but I was left feeling downcast and blue. I wish I could recommend The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry because of the quality of the writing, the insight into human nature, and the wisdom imparted (in regards to repairing relationships before it’s too late). It is my opinion, however, that the positive did not outweigh the negative enough for me to suggest that it would be a worthwhile expenditure of time.
If you’re looking to read a book about a stodgy older English fellow who learns to change his ways, I believe you’d be better off reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, as you’d be more likely to come out the other side of it with a smile on your face.