The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
If it’s true that there are only a few universal plots in the world, then the transcendental journey must make the cut. And if a story about a journey is commonplace, then starting a novel with the arrival of a letter borders on cliché. Based on this premise, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry does not sound promising, and yet it’s one of the most charming books I’ve read in recent memory. This novel ranks up there on my list of favorites with Olive Kitteridge and The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise.
The letter that upends dull retiree Harold Fry’s quiet life is from Queenie Hennessey, a co-worker he hasn’t seen in twenty years. She writes to tell him she’s dying of cancer and to say goodbye. The letter hits Harold unexpectedly hard and when he heads out to post his reply to her, he can’t commit to mailing his letter. Instead, he keeps walking further away, from mailbox to mailbox. After a chance meeting, he eventually decides to walk hundreds of miles across England in his yachting shoes to deliver the letter himself. In-so-doing, he believes he can postpone Queenie Hennessey’s death, at least for a little while.
Throughout the course of his earnest quest, Harold wrestles with a variety of internal topics: remorse, guilt, depression, denial. We learn about his love for his wife Maureen and their difficult son, their failing marriage, and his time years ago with Queenie Hennessey. As he ruminates on his past, we watch him transform from a washed-up retiree into a man with conviction, inner heart, and spirit.
Paired with the telling of Harold’s story is that of his wife, Maureen. Baffled by her husband’s sudden abandonment and looking at an uncertain future, Maureen must make a similar internal journey back to the beginning of their relationship in order to reconnect emotionally with her now absent spouse.
The story moves between husband and wife as Harold treks north on a journey fraught with challenges such as injuries and bad weather. His quest takes readers through famous big cities and smaller country towns on foot and introduces us to a diverse cast of characters that range from a thoughtful Romanian doctor to a PR guru trying to turn Harold’s pilgrimage into a media stunt. Each one offers Harold unique insight into his own life and the human condition, allowing him to make the leaps of self-discovery that will help him reach the end of all his quests.
Charming, bittersweet, and simply lovely, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a gem of read.