Harold Fry, six months retired from his job as sales representative for a local brewery, gets a letter from Queenie, a woman he'd worked with twenty years before but hasn't seen since. She tells him that she's dying of cancer. The news upsets him for years earlier, Queenie had done him a great favor and he'd never had the chance to thank her. He sits down to write a letter to her but finds it hard to say anything without seeming . . . "limp,' is the word that comes to his mind. When he has finished the letter, he leaves the house to mail it but when he gets to the mailbox, he walks on to the next one, and then the next, and the next, and soon he's at the opposite edge of town. He stops at a convenience store to get something to eat. He tells the girl at the counter that he has a friend who has cancer and he's got a letter he's going to post to her. The girl talks about her aunt who had cancer. She says science doesn't know everything, you have to believe a person can get better. "You see, if you have faith, you can do anything."
In that moment, Harold, who's spent most of his life doing only the ordinary and comfortable at all, realizes what he must do. He's going to walking to his friend's sickbed. He knows it's not reasonable but he's convinced that as long as he keeps walking toward her, his friend will stay alive. He telephones the hospice, tells Queenie's nurse to take her a message: "Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. . . . I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. Will you say that? . . . Tell her this time I won't let her down."
And that's how Harold sets out on a six hundred mile journey, from Kingsbridge to Berwick upon Tweed, utterly unprepared for the trip and dressed in everyday clothes, not hiking gear. On his way, he meets all sorts of people and has all sorts of adventures, more small than large. ("Life was very different when you walked through it," Harold observes.) As he walks, the memories pile in: memories of a mother who abandoned him and a harsh, unforgiving father; the happy early years with his wife, Maureen; their hopes for their son David. But David intimidates Harold and Maude with his intelligence and his intransigence. He puts down his father for reading the wrong newspaper, as though that single fact renders him unfit to comment on anything. His mother makes excuses for him, "He's clever, you see," and the author observes, "implicit in the remark was the conviction that cleverness was both an excuse for everything, and out of their reach." (How sad!) Something happens and Maureen and he fall out. They no longer connect, no longer talk or share experiences. They still live together --in a modest cottage, shuttered with white net curtains that hide the world outside- but their lives are loveless and claustrophobic, where once they had been happy. What happened?
It would be wrong to reveal more of what happens in this lovely novel. In the end, both Harold and Maude learn something about themselves but as to what they learn, read it for yourself.
This is a quite good read. I'm uncomfortable with books that are overly sentimental - but though at times, this book comes close to being mawkish, it never is. The author avoids excess even in a book as filled with feeling as this one is; she doesn't clobber the reader over the head with a message. At one point in the book, Harold picks up followers, who want to join him on his pilgrimage across England. This part of the book seems contrived -too deliberately comic in its overtones- but still, even this portion is eminently readable. As to Harold and Maude, they are wonderful creations.
I particularly like the way the author describes things. She catches the way a not terribly well educated, not at all original late-middle aged man like Harold would see things, expressing his view of them in ordinary (concrete) language that yet has its own poetry. Thus Harold observes a woman he meets on the way: "Her eyes were round, as if she had contact lenses that maybe hurt." His 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. He would roll down the hill like a barrel."
Ultimately this novel is about redemption. It's not grand and certainly not flashy. But it is very human.
This book may inspire you to go for a long walk--for 500 miles or so--like its protagonist Harold Fry did across England. You see how walking through your world five to ten miles a day for 500 miles might transform you. "Life was very different when you walked through it," realizes Harold.
Harold Fry lives invisibly and conventionally. His wife, Maureen, has become like her taste in toast: "cold and crisp". One day a letter arrives for Harold that changes their lives. The letter causes him to do something irrational and unpredictable. But as a waitress sympathetically told him in my favorite line of the book, "If we don't go mad once in a while, there's no hope." (That sounds so oddly rational that I have been contemplating what "mad" thing to do to increase the hope quotient. This may be a subversive book.)
Howard takes off on foot on a pilgrimage to see the writer of this letter. As a kind of modern CANTERBURY TALES, Howard meets many eccentric and colorful characters who cause him to see life in a new way. The pleasure of this book for me was rejoicing in Harold's transformation and the new life and self he is beginning to create. "He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others." Meanwhile his wife, Maureen, is simultaneously changing at home: "She had given herself a challenge: every day without him, she would attempt one new thing." This book chronicles the changes these two characters undergo during Harold's pilgrimage which oddly brings them closer.
The other huge pleasure of this book is the author's original and vibrant writing. Some choice examples:
* "His shirt, tie, and trousers were folded small as an apology on a faded blue velvet chair."
* "They spoke with the same cut-glass loud accent as Maureen's mother had used."
* "In the morning, her frocks were strewn like empty mothers all over the small house."
I couldn't help wonder how the author could write so gorgeously in a first book. Learned she previously had a twenty-year acting career performing leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company speaking the immortal words of the Bard himself--what better training? That background combined with writing plays for BBC Radio must have helped the author to create some of the best prose I have read recently. (This is a tad random, but if the author ever had the desire to write a mystery, her ability to sketch intriguing characters and situations with delicious prose could combine in an original and quirky mystery series like Kate Atkinson and John Banville/Benjamin Black have done.)
If you like a lot of action in a novel, this is more introspective fare. Sometimes the book moves slowly like a meandering and melancholy walk as Howard revisits in his mind his unlived and mournful life. Othertimes, you may just want to buy Harold a thick pair of socks and sturdy walking shoes so you won't have to read about his blisters anymore.
If you enjoy original and thoughtful novels of introspection and character transformation, you may enjoy this novel which moves from melancholy to buoyancy as Harold walks into an encouraging and promising future. If you enjoy stories of positive transformation, this novel may beguile you. And if you don't decide to "go a little mad once in a while", at the least you will probably enjoy walking more with a sense of its possibilities after reading this winsome novel.
I selected "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" to read and review because I loved "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," a book to which it was compared in the publisher's preview. And while I prefer "Major Pettigrew" for its pacing and multicultural appeal, I wholeheartedly recommend "Harold Fry." It has charms of its own.
Henry David Thoreau observed, "The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation," and I could not help but recall this quotation as I began Rachel Joyce's lovely debut novel. As the novel begins, Harold is merely existing. The reader is not given many details, but it is clear that Harold's marriage to Maureen is an empty shell, and that there are problems in his relationship with his adult son, David. Then Harold gets a farewell letter of sorts from a friend, Queenie Hennessy, and his carefully orchestrated charade of a life begins to come apart. Queenie had "done something nice" for Harold twenty years previous, and he always regretted not thanking her. Whatever this is is shrouded in mystery, and many readers will suspect a long-past affair. All these questions are a bit disconcerting, but if the reader is patient, all will be resolved.
Harold writes a "pro forma" response to Queenie's note, but as he goes out to mail it, something prevents him from putting it in the first mailbox he comes to. He passes postbox after postbox, and eventually makes an impulsive decision to walk from his hometown to Queenie's hospice, about 600 miles. Thus begins his transformation from a kind of living death to fullness of life.
Readers who are familiar with Joseph Campbell's "The Hero's Journey" will immediately recognize the motif: the hero leaves the world he knows to embark on a quest. Along the way he meets both helpers and tempters, and he eventually returns to the known world with a fullness of knowledge or with something to enrich his community and himself.
Harold Fry fits this motif to a tee. He meets many people and even animals along the way, and he gains something of value from each of them, even those who would deter him from his quest. Meanwhile, back at home, Maureen is undergoing her own transformation as she worries and responds to Harold's calls, postcards, and gifts. Nothing is as Harold or Maureen expect it to be. And the end of the quest is rewarding, but not in the way Harold imagines.
One final observation: This is a beautifully written novel. Most readers will love the use of language, especially in descriptions of the natural world. I am stunned that this is the author's first novel, though she has written many screenplays for the BBC. I hope to read much more of her work.
Most readers will like and appreciate "Harold Fry" if they persevere through the ambiguity at the beginning. Everything falls together eventually, I promise! Highly recommended.
on August 26, 2012
With 98 customer reviews, nobody needs another. Still, I am so grateful for the emotional feast and the uplifting poetry of timing and plot of this book, I want to add a comment. I find I can and do listen successfully in the car while driving. I am a 72 year old retiree who finds the book and the excellent narration by Jim Broadbent startlingly beautiful. The story is structured in such a way that we get a chance to think about childhood, courtship, young married life, middle age, aging, sociality, solitude, nature, and death in as insightful and accurate way as seems possible. One of the other reviewers said, "I'm telling you: I love this book." I feel just that way. For the sake of a good life for us all, I hope Rachel Joyce is nearly finished with another book.
Normally, I really enjoy small, slice-of-life stories about ordinary people, which is why I ordered the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It has been compared to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel, and in fact, the cover includes a glowing testimonial by that book's author. But while I absolutely loved "Major Pettigrew," I was less enamored of "Harold Fry." I realize, based on the other reviews, that makes me something of a contrarian, but although the concept was good (though not groundbreaking--David Grossman's To the End of the Land had a similar premise), by its very nature the book was episodic and a bit slow, kind of plodding along like Harold himself. The author did her best to get inside the heads of Harold and his wife, Maureen, and she introduced the requisite colorful characters along the way. She also hinted at elements of the back story that weren't revealed fully until the end. And the main characters were changed, as they need to be in all good fiction.
But the book and its characters never really engaged me the way Major Pettigrew's cast did. Just as there was a sameness to many of Harold's days (at least until he was joined by a group of hangers-on), there was a predictability and repetitiveness to many of the chapters--lots of description of the weather, the countryside and the roads, physical challenges and various encounters with mostly kind people. And toward the end, some of the events were just implausible. It was simply hard to believe, for example, that some of the characters would pour their hearts out to complete strangers in the way they did. It was as if the author was using the device for convenience, to reveal parts of the story, without much regard for whether it was believable. Even one of the pivotal back story events, which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling, didn't make sense. Why would the character, a number cruncher, be cleaning someone else's office?
Rachel Joyce clearly has great potential as a writer--she knows how to describe the world she's depicting and is insightful about her characters--but this book, her first, didn't really resonate with me, primarily because of the pacing and the implausibility of some of the elements. Perhaps her next one will.
I started out thinking Harold Fry had little chance of moving me. But he did.
The story was interesting. The background story worked toward a very satisfying conclusion. But the real story here is the journey of discovery by Harold and his wife Maureen. What they learn about themselves during this unlikely pilgrimage is the true story.
What is important? How are we forever changed by past choices? Most of all, is our paradigm, our personal road map of life, a representation of the real world? Harold and Maureen look at what we know to be true but may have forgotten.
The writing is great. The story is engaging. The message is powerful. What more could you want in a 250-300 page book?
on March 18, 2014
I thought I would really like this book when I began it and when I got to the middle of the first chapter. The writing was interesting. They way the story developed a little bit at a time was clever. The idea of the journey itself was creative BUT...............................in the beginning I found Harold to be a bit charming, then I began to feel sorry for him, after a few more chapters I became annoyed by his choices, decisions, and inabilities. Further on in the book I just became apathetic towards Harold and his wife and I really didn't care whether they completed any journey at all. I kept reading in hopes that the story would have something worthwhile to take away.
I was extremely disappointed when Harold reached his supposed goal and got to where Queenie was. I hated that I had waited so long to get word of her and then was left with what turned into a bit of a horror story with the gross and completely unnecessary state the author put her in. Of course cancer is a cruel disease, most of us completely understand that, but the cancer and the state of Queenie wasn't the focus of the story or Harold's journey but it became so with the lengthy description of her condition and disfigurement.
I also found great fault in the timing of many events. At the end of the journey Harold wrote a lengthy letter to a waitress who inspired him to begin the journey. This letter went to her workplace but she no longer worked there. Somehow she was able to collect the letter and take it to Harold's wife in order to have a chat with her, after which time Harold's wife was able to cover the whole distance Harold traveled in many months but do so in very quick order so that she was at his side right after he visits Queenie. It just seemed at that point everything moved at super sonic speed to wrap up the story quickly as if the author herself was tired of Harold since the rest of the book was a leisurely slow snail pace walk.
After I finished the book and thought more about it I actually became annoyed that I had given up so much time to it. Harold and his wife were not worth my time. They were hopeless and helpless and they could not have bumbled through life more. Naturally people can get stuck with grief and old habits but this went way too far and it became in my eyes just a case of not a brain cell to be had between them.
Gosh, this book irritated me. Clearly I have no heart, but I simply don't understand the rave reviews, the Booker Prize nomination, nor the recommendations from a friend who told me it was one of her favourite books from last year. I. Don't. Get. It. It's saccharine sweet, knowingly quirky and then it heaps on a surprise reveal for a tearjerker ending that felt manipulative in the extreme.
Harold Fry is 65 and retired. He lives in Devon in England's south-east with Maureen, his wife of 45 years. The marriage is not terribly happy; they co-exist, but that's about it. One day he gets a letter from a former colleague whom he has not seen or talked to in 45 years. Queenie is writing to tell him that she has terminal cancer. Harold writes a letter in reply, goes out to post it and then spontaneously decides to walk to Queenie, (a journey of 627 miles). Between numerous references to blisters and his inappropriate loafers which he will stubbornly refuse to replace, there are numerous encounters with an array of quirky characters who it would seem are desperate to unburden themselves on a stranger. Along the way he thinks a great deal about his upbringing, his relationship with his wife and his troubled relationship with his son. I wanted to shout at him to stop being such a martyr and I also wanted to slap almost every person that he met along the way.
This reminds me of books like Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel, with its conviction that England is populated with nothing but endearing eccentrics. Even the whimsical chapter names "Harold and the Hiking Man and the Woman who Loved Jane Austen" or "Harold and the Barman and the Woman with Food" had me wanting to beat the book against a wall, screaming. To ram home the cutesy factor, each jolly little chapter title is accompanied by a playfully quaint illustration of a hedgehog or a pansy or a crow. So lovable!
In case you have written me off by now as a cold-hearted monster, I must point out that the central message didn't escape my notice - how could it, being laid on like a trowel? Harold realises that "in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others" - meaning that he doggedly thinks the best of every moron who crosses his path. And yes, I was moved by the revelation near the book's conclusion. Hence my generosity in doubling my star rating. Actually that's a little unfair - it's not totally awful. It's an easy read, mercifully short and if you're less hard-hearted that me, you may even like it.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a poignant, thought-provoking, and tremendously involving piece of work. Set in England, it's a powerful and inspirational story about love, friendship, mortality, and burning regrets. A story about faith, persistence, and opening oneself to the world and people around you. Confronting the ghosts of your past and mending broken - or almost broken - bonds with the people in your life. Above all, it's a deeply affecting tale of one man's journey - both physical as well as metaphysical - to say his final goodbyes to a once dear friend.
Harold Fry, a retired sales representative, receives a letter from his former co-worker and old friend, Queenie, in which she informs him that she's dying from cancer. Through tears, Harold scribbles a polite reply, in which he tells Queenie that he's deeply sorry about her situation. He then puts on his waterproof jacket and walks out the door, headed for the mailbox at the end of the road. Upon reaching the mailbox, he decides to walk to the next one, and then the next one, until he finds himself at the opposite side of the town. Hungry, he stops at a convenience store to grab a bite. There he meets a young girl who tells him about her sick aunt, and that when it comes to battling disease science is not everything, it's also - or perhaps most of all - important to have faith. Because "if you have faith, you can do anything". Inspired by these words, Harold makes up his mind to do something that he'd never normally do, he decides to walk to Queenie's sickbed, convinced that this will somehow help her survive, even if only for a little longer.
"Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. . . . I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living. Will you say that? . . . Tell her this time I won't let her down."
Harold is not much of a walker, his decision to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to Berwick upon Tweed, is a spur-of-a-moment one. With no phone and no good walking shoes, he's utterly unprepared for the journey, yet he's armed with faith and determination, and he won't give up until he reaches his destination. He believes in the importance of his journey. As long as he keeps on walking, Queenie will keep on living, waiting for him to arrive. On his way he meets all sorts of people and passes through all sorts of places. With every step, he sees something he never saw (or paid attention to) before, and he learns something new about the world and himself. With plenty of time to think, he ponders his life, and his relationship with his wife and son. He recalls past conversations, events and other memorable moments that shaped his future. And with every eccentric person he encounters, every life-changing thought that pops into his head, Harold begins to see his life in a new light.
This book affected me in so many ways. It really got under my skin and made me stop and think about the plot, its meaning, as well as how it all relates to my own life. After all, we all carry the burden of mortality through our lives; and we all have things we regret, things we wish we'd done differently. Some sort of unfinished business that prevents us from moving on and being happy. This book is about all those things we regret doing (or NOT doing), saying (or NOT saying).. It's about those paths we never walked, places we never explored, thoughts we dared not to think.. and how they ultimately shaped our lives and the lives of people around us. Most importantly, though, this story shows us that it's never too late to take the first step and embark on a life-changing journey. As long as the clock keeps on ticking, and our hearts keep on beating, there is always hope. And you should never give up. It's a beautiful, uplifting message, and one I'll never forget.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is beautifully written, subtle, cathartic, hopeful and almost poetic. Honest and heart-felt, it's a profoundly meaningful story about a deeply spiritual journey. A journey that is even more important than the getting to the destination. Though it comes really close to being overly sentimental, even cheesy, Harold's pilgrimage is in fact modest, unpretentious and obviously well-intentioned. The long walk to Queenie proves to be very difficult, painful, and seemingly too much for his old, unprepared self, but at the same time it's also eye-opening, introspective, and - ultimately - rewarding. A serene experience that purifies and revitalizes both the heart and the soul.
I can't recommend this book enough.
on June 13, 2012
This is a neat story, very quiet and quaint, at turns touching and funny and frustrating. Harold meets all sorts of people along his journey, and we get to hear their stories of heartache, triumph, unfulfilled wishes, and total mundanity. Harold revisits many of his own percieved failures and missed opportunities, and tries to recapture his love of life and his love with Maureen.
It's the sort of story they make into a hanky movie, which isn't usually my scene, but I actually quite enjoyed the book. It was a slow read, but satisfying. My only real complaint is that everything seems to be exaggerated. It seems to take FAR too long for him to cover ground, even with all his stops and problems. And does a pair of shoes really need new soles after only 60 miles? Would a man on a walk really capture so much attention? I don't know. For a nitpicky reader like me, it was distracting. Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter how realistic it is, it's still a great story. :)