The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
2012 Random House Audio
Reader: Jim Broadbent
Finished on 3/5/13
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
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.
Sigh. I really wanted to fall in love with this novel. I’d heard very good things about it and was excited to begin as soon as the audio showed up in my library queue. Maybe the print edition is better than the audio, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with the narrative (through no fault of the excellent reading by Jim Broadbent). As I listened, I found myself comparing the story to that of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I enjoyed tremendously, but Joyce’s debut novel was a bit flat and I never felt fully engaged in the story.
I did discover one gem that I’d like to share:
People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The superhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.
Final Thoughts: Good, but not great. While it might appeal to fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, I felt The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a little too sentimental for my taste. However, once again I’m in the minority. Take a moment to read Heather’s lovely blog post (and the follow-up comments) before you decide to skip this novel. Note to self: Leave the audio books to thrillers, mysteries, and horror, and save the printed copies for more literary novels.
Go here to listen to the author speak with Diane Rehm on NPR.