Monday, December 17, 2012

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

This sweet, heartfelt book reminded me of movies like Waking Ned Devine or The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. It even had some Forrest Gump-ian characteristics (without the Southern accent or the meteoric run through historical events). But despite some similarities, this was a unique book with a story all its own.

Harold Fry recently retired from his job, and now doesn't feel motivated to do much of anything. His very presence seems to irritate his wife, Maureen. But then again, their relationship has been strained for some time, full of hurt and anger both spoken and unspoken, especially since their son, David, left home.

One day, Harold receives a letter from an unlikely source—Queenie Hennessy, a former coworker he hasn't seen or heard from in 20 years. Queenie wrote to tell Harold that she is in hospice suffering from terminal cancer, and wanted to say goodbye. Harold is shocked by this news and touched by the memories Queenie's letter stirred up, so he quickly dashes off a note of support, and heads to the corner mailbox. Yet as he arrives at the mailbox, he realizes it is a nice day outside, and decides to keep walking to the next one.

On his journey to the post office, from where he figures sending the letter will allow it to arrive quicker, Harold has a chance encounter that changes everything. And then he decides he must keep walking, all the way to visit Queenie in person to help save her—despite the fact it is a 600-mile journey from his home in Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-on-Tweed. Not to mention he hasn't had much physical exercise in many years, and isn't all dressed for that type of journey.

But walk he does, much to his surprise, and Maureen's shock, anger, and chagrin. Harold's walk opens his mind to memories both good and painful, as he relives his friendship with Queenie and tries to figure out exactly where his and Maureen's relationship went wrong. "Life was very different when you walked through it," he said, and along his walk he comes into contact with many different people and realizes that each has an interesting story to tell.

"The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time." Harold's journey takes many interesting twists and turns, and people's reactions to it become almost indicative of the world we live in today. And during Harold's absence, Maureen tries to figure out the root of her anger with Harold, and whether her life is worth living without him.

This is a compelling, enjoyable, and warm story about the unlikely journeys we take, sometimes simply to prove we still have life inside of us. It's also a story about the things we say and don't say to those we care about, and the ramifications of both. I liked this book quite a bit, although I could have done without the events around the public's embracing of Harold's pilgrimage, as I felt it took the book into more satirical territory than the story needed. Beyond that, however, this book had charm, the special charm you feel after a whimsical movie like the ones I mentioned above.

1 comment:

  1. As I read this, I kept thinking that the author had in mind that it should be made into a tv miniseries or movie. I was, therefore, very unsurprised to discover that she is a scriptwriter. I thought the book read like a somewhat extended synopsis. Anyone who's ever done a creative writing class will probably have been exhorted to "show, don't tell". Ms Joyce would do well to bear that in mind.