Monday, November 19, 2012

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry seems like it would be a good generic book club selection. I don't mean that as an insult (to the novel or to "chit-chat rather than actually talk about the book" clubs) so much as acknowledgment of what the book is: pleasant and vaguely interesting without being important. The characters are sufficiently sympathetic, and the book isn't overly saccharine. Plus, I like how Joyce has taken the "year off to travel Europe" conceit and applied it to a 60-year-old retiree. Still, there's little to remember in the plot or style.

The protagonist of the novel is Harold Fry; his marriage has been cold for a long time, and neither he nor his wife have moved on from their son's death twenty years ago (it's supposed to be a "big reveal" at the end that the son is dead, but the fact seemed very obvious to me early on). One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie, a former coworker who left suddenly many years ago and is now dying of cancer. Though initially Harold plans only to mail her a letter in reply, he suddenly gets the urge to walk to Berwick, where she is residing, even though it's hundreds of miles away and even though he's made no preparations. Harold comes to believe that his walk will save Queenie--and maybe himself.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage follows Harold on his journey to Queenie, cataloging the required odd characters he meets along the way and describing his journey into a more purposeful man. Though the book seems ever in danger of dipping into the cliche or maudlin, Joyce does a nice job of keeping an even hand. Harold does grow, and he helps some people, but he doesn't save everyone. And Joyce also mostly acknowledges that there's no real heroism in just walking--I've always been skeptical when I read stories about so-and-so biking 1000 miles for breast cancer or something. Is that supposed to be a big sacrifice? Who wouldn't want to give up working and real world responsibilities for months and just focus on moving forward?

Interestingly, this book paired well with The Middlesteins in its depiction of a 60-something couple who has grown distant. In both cases the couple has stayed together despite the poor relationship, with the woman becoming the nag and the man becoming the silent hermit. Oh, and teenage children hate their parents. The terrors of teenage children and the lovelessness of long-term marriages were so eerily similar in both that I almost felt depressed. I suppose happily married couples aren't interesting to write about.

Joyce's novel would be safe for nearly everyone (though a few of the people Harold meets have decidedly "risque" stories) and does provide a nice contrast with the "finding yourself" stories of the young, but it's nothing that will stay with me.


  1. I'm a little skeptical of "so-and-so biking 1000 miles for breast cancer" too. But I thought the story was nice. I didn't LOVE it, but I enjoyed it. :)

    You know, there was one review I read where the person was complaining about the terrible language of one of the characters. I expected large portions of the book to have language in them. It was ONE character for like, what, 3 pages? haha. You made me think of that when you said it was for "nearly everyone." :)

  2. That's so funny that a person would complain about the language. When I finished, my first thought was "what a wholesome, family friendly book," and I only remembered late that there were a few barely "scandalous" moments. I guess different things stand out to different people!