Monday, November 19, 2012
"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce
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.