Stephanie's Reviews > The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
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's review
Jun 10, 2012

it was amazing

I read an ARC of this book, which comes out on July 24 from Random House, which I won in a giveaway on ShelfAwareness Pro.
Original Post: FANGS, WANDS and FAIRY DUST: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry contains Wisdom in Every Page

Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.

And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.

A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.

This is an amazing book and has not a single vampire, werewolf or witch. There's no sex. What it does have is the miracle of the human heart.

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY holds within a story about love, regret, failings and successes, the art of blending in, marriage, friendship, the small and the large acts of kindness and evil. It is a story about how a married couple can lose their relationship and get it back; how someone can payback a small kindness with a huge kindness. How sometimes we cannot change the outcome of a tragic trajectory of a life no matter what we do.

A lot of things can ruin the intimacy the start of most marriages enjoy. Sometimes it results in separation, sometimes it is just a slow failure of whatever adhesive shmushed two individuals into a couple to the point where the lives being led are so separate that divorce is just an afterthought.

Queenie's and Harold's relationship was intimately platonic. She was the mother, the sister that Harold never had. Unlike his mother in whose disaffection and abandonment Harold was set up for a life time of keeping his head down, Queenie held him as something special. Maureen's devotion to their son in an effort to assuage his problems began the couple's separation. When Harold sets out to save Queenie, to help her not die, he is setting out to thank her for being the friend she was to him he sets out to find himself.When he thinks he has discovered the truth, the meaning of life, he, like so many pilgrims learns he was mistaken about the nature of truth.

Quite a bit is made of Harold's decision to walk instead of driving. Driving would be too easy. This isn't just a pilgrimage, it's a penance. The yacht shoes he wears are his hair shirt. And, in another sense, Harold's pilgrimage is a breaking out of his mold. He is shrugging off his entrenched ordinariness.

This book has quiet wisdom in every page; not like a proverb or scripture but in the little words and ways that make up a life. A neighbor's kindness as Maureen and he discuss marriage, and he tells her he should have raged against the cancer that killed her, not that he could cure it, but so she would know he had tried was terribly moving -- so much so that I am tearing up just thinking about it. As a genre fiction reader I was a little scared of this literary fiction, but after a few pages I was so involved in the characters that I read it all the way from NY to Maine. I pulled out my iPhone and plotted Harold's trip on the map app. The writing is spare, beautiful, well-crafted prose. The characters are distinct, unmistakeably British, very, very human, and so well drawn in words they popped into my head visually and don't even look like actors. I ended up bawling in the car. Thankfully I had left off my mascara.

This book isn't speculative at all, except in the sense that it is a modern fable. And, in the end the healing that occurs is miraculous. This is a piece of literary fiction not to be missed. I call it a MUST READ.

Have you ever done something like this; done something so intense, for a friend?

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