Rick MacDonnell's Reviews > The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
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Jan 01, 15

Read from August 22 to 27, 2012

Harold Fry, recently retired, lives in a small English village with his hen-pecking wife, Maureen. The days and weeks plod along, each one as uneventful as the last. That is, until one morning when a letter arrives addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl. It is from Queenie Hennessey, a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. She is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold writes an uncomfortably hasty reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads off to mail his response. But an oh-so-convenient chance encounter happens en route, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message, on foot, to Queenie, in person. Thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s 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.

Who exactly is Queenie Hennessey? What was Harold’s relationship to her? Why is he overcome with such strong regret? How will this effect Harold’s relationship with Maureen and their unavailable son David?

The trouble with novels like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is that the reader’s opinion is determined almost solely as a result of his/her response to the “payoff”. So much of the story is shrouded in the constantly teased mystery of Queenie Hennessey and Harold Fry that the success or failure of the entire enterprise hinges on how the reader responds to the “twist”.

I, for one, didn’t care for it. There’s an unhealthy dose of manipulation going on here, which is a shame because I enjoyed the bulk of Harold Fry. The premise is really intriguing, but the execution left a little to be desired (for me).

Much has been made (in many glaring reviews) of the host of “colorful characters” Harold meets along his journey; some portrayals go so far as to sound like back cover copy for The Hobbit. (Harold was a quiet sort of man who didn’t like to do anything exciting or go on any adventures. But through his many new friends he learned there was much more to himself than he first thought!)

Most of these encounters are entertaining and insightful, and even charming, but by its very nature the book becomes episodic. Each of these characters appears only long enough to conveniently unlock some long-dormant memory or facet of Harold’s personality. The result is a more shallow series of experiences than what the author likely intended.

Joyce shows great promise, though. She’s clear and concise, and possesses the requisite amount of charm to create likeable, relatable characters. And she’s funny.

Harold’s next door neighbor, Rex, "was a short man with tidy feet at the bottom, a small head at the top, and a very round body in the middle, causing Harold to fear sometimes that if he fell there would be no stopping him.”

Unfortunately, though, the longer I think about the struggle between Harold and Maureen the more annoyed I am by it. Maureen’s seemingly moment-to-moment criticisms even extend to how Harold butters his toast. All this for a 20-year blame she’s unloaded on him specifically for something that happened with their son. All she does is blame and complain, and Harold just … takes it … out of some misplaced guilt. It all seems very unfair treatment given that Harold’s one hell of a stand-up guy.

And he loves Maureen, even now. The story, in many ways, is about Harold realizing how much he still loves her. Even though their marriage is very much a sham, their interactions are negligible at best. There’s no love left, but that’s what we’re made to believe. It’s bogus, it’s contrived, it’s not a message I think should be put out into the world. This is a marriage of convenience, and that’s something to be admonished, not encouraged.

These two people are not meant to be together, at least not anymore, and Harold Fry does nothing if not perpetuate this type of dysfunctional relationship. Evidently this is acceptable because this kind of relationship is ubiquitous with golden-age couples. (Cue eye roll)

While I enjoyed many parts of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the plight of its hero didn’t really resonate with me. With a little more plausibility, perhaps Rachel Joyce’s next book will. I’m crossing my fingers, because there’s definitely a great book in her somewhere.
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Reading Progress

08/22/2012 "If this isn't made into a movie with Michael Cane some day, I'll be pissed."
08/26/2012 page 290
86.0% "Good book."

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