Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce; Random House; July 2012; 336 pp. $25.00
When Harold Fry, a recently retired gentleman living in a small English village, receives a letter from a woman he worked with twenty years ago, his life changes. Harold hasn't heard from Queenie Hennessy since she left her job. In her letter to Harold, she announces that she is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. Harold is disturbed by this news as he has never had the chance to thank Queenie for the huge favor she did for him before she left. He composes a quick reply and walks to the corner mailbox to send the letter.
As Harold approaches the mailbox, he realizes he isn't ready to drop the letter in, thinking his words to Queenie are inadequate. After passing several mailboxes, Harold stops at a gas station, where he tells the young attendant about Queenie's cancer. Their conversation convinces Harold that he must deliver his note to Queenie in person. He leaves a phone message for Queenie, imploring her to keep living while he walks to her, believing that she will live as long as he keeps walking.
Thus begins Rachel Joyce's debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The pilgrimage on which Harold Fry embarks is certainly unlikely, not to mention unreasonable. Harold has left home wearing a light jacket and yachting shoes and has left his cell phone behind. The distance he needs to walk to reach Queenie is six hundred miles!
Joyce's tale is really not a book about a man on a long walk; it is the story of man's journey. While on his pilgrimage, Harold reflects on many aspects of his life. In his youth, his mother abandoned him and his father was a cold and unloving man. His relationship with his wife Maureen has been troubled and distant since their estrangement from their adult son, David.
As he walks, Harold remembers his courtship with Maureen, their wedding day, and becoming a father. He relives many of the happy moments, but also revisits the painful occurrences and missed opportunities in his life. As he meets various characters along the way, Harold begins to see life in a new way.
Meanwhile, Maureen is astounded when her husband, who has become quite dormant, calls to tell her what he is doing. She tells him "Harold, you are sixty-five. You only every walk to get to the car." She is certain that he won't be able to complete this irrational excursion and annoyed that he is even trying to do so. However, as Harold's journey continues, Maureen finds herself missing her husband and looking back on their life together.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a touching story of the transformation of two people who have grown apart, but ultimately realize their love for each other. The final chapters clarify why Queenie left her job, what happened to David, and whether or not Harold makes it to Queenie on time.
What makes this book so exceptional is the beautiful and tender writing. There are moments in the book that are quite funny and delightful and parts that are poignant and heartrending. Rachel Joyce, who is an award-winning playwright for BBC Radio and a former British actress, has written a charming first novel.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is available at local bookstores, including the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University Bookstores.