“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, by Rachel Joyce

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” was April’s ‘Kind of Like a Book Club’ book. If you read it, I hope you share your opinion in the comments section below. Don’t feel bad about disagreeing with me. I had a very strong reaction to this novel that I know not everyone shares. For example, a reviewer for the Washington Post called it “a cause for celebration”. I sure beg to differ.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here’s what the story is about: Harold Fry is a 60-year-old retiree living in England with his bitter wife, Maureen. His life is empty and loveless, until one day he receives a letter from a former coworker named Queenie who is dying of cancer in a medical facility 500 miles away. Queenie is one of the few people in Harold’s life that has actually been decent to him, so the bad news really affects him. He scratches out an inadequate response and sets out on foot to mail it from the nearest mail box. Except when he gets there he isn’t ready to stop walking. He gets it into his head that Queenie will remain alive as long as he keeps walking. So he decides to walk the 500 miles to Queenie. Wearing boat shoes and a tie. Without a cell phone or gear. Without telling his wife first.

And so begins a journey not just across England, but through Harold’s head as we learn about his rotten parents, his rotten wife, his rotten son, his rotten boss and his rotten judgment. Harold is a character that alternately evokes great sympathy and profound frustration. Sometimes I wanted to give him a hug but mostly I wanted to shake him and tell him to buy some decent walking shoes already!

There are glimmers of hope in the book. Harold’s attitude is occasionally triumphant and he connects with some of the people he meets in a very decent, heartfelt way. But just when things are looking up, you’re slapped with a depressing reversal of fortune – his wife let’s him down, selfish people hijack his walk, even his dog abandons him.

This book is well written, but it’s a downer. It’s a well written downer. I spent last Saturday trying to get through it. The weather was gloomy, a few ants from the patio found their way into my bed and I was reading “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”. Of the three, the rain and ants crawling on me were the least upsetting. I was kind of a mess by the end of the afternoon. It took 3 episodes of The Big Bang Theory to cheer me back up.

But here’s the deal – I don’t like sad or depressing books, so I was destined to not like this one. It’s a bias I have. I would really love to hear some additional opinions. Please share your thoughts below.

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16 thoughts on ““The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, by Rachel Joyce

  1. Hi Michelle! Molly, Emily, and I are all reading this book right now – we chose it because of the ‘Kind of Like a Book Club’ but alas, we are a bit behind. We plan to finish it within a week or two so I plan to post then as I’m sure will Molly. Meanwhile, I did not read your comments yet since I don’t want to be influenced one way or another! More to follow…

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  2. I read this book over a year ago. Like you, I liked the writing, but was often frustrated with it. I don’t think it was realistic the man kept walking in those shoes!!!!! He might have started in them but he would have fixed the problem early on I think. It was things like this that made me fall away from the story and not stay in the book’s pages where I wanted to be. I did not like the interruption of my mind saying, “Now really!”.

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  3. I agree with so much of what you said. I was hoping this book would speak to me in the same way “A Man Called Ove” did, but it fell short of my expectations. It lacked moments of joy and I had a hard time connecting to any of the characters. I suppose if I were to somehow drag a lesson out of it, it would be that one should not push aside grief, and instead hang onto the good memories of one’s past relationships in order to maintain some degree of happiness. But really, this family could have used a good counselor — it seemed like everyone suffered from a lack of communication.

    I kept referring to the map at the beginning of the book to check how far Harold had made it along his journey. I took this as a sign that the story really needed to move along faster in order to enlighten or entertain me. I was also annoyed by the frequent reminders of Harold’s less-than-ideal footwear situation. The author made her point – that not dealing with problems leads to needless suffering – but I felt it was a bit overstated.

    There was laughter in the end, but it came too late for me. The story took me on too gloomy of a journey — even for sunny So Cal!

    ***Edited by my awesome daughter Sarah***

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    • Thanks for the comments, Virginia, and I’m glad you explained the shoe metaphor. I knew there must have been a metaphor there but I didn’t feel like figuring it out.:-)

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  4. I’m with you on this one! I think it was an interesting concept and objectively well-written, but reading it, I just felt sad and frustrated. I like books that are more life-affirming, even if bleak books are sometimes more realistic — perhaps because bleak books are sometimes more realistic. It’s nice to escape into a happier world, or one that makes you feel like there’s a greater meaning/purpose behind people’s suffering.

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  5. I agreed with your review wholeheartedly! I read this for book club and was so surprised that my fellow readers were not as annoyed/distracted as I was by the shoe situation, as well as all those road blocks along the way. I ended up being so annoyed that I skimmed over whole chapters to get to the end–I really hate to waste my time slogging through a story like this unless there’s a worthwhile payoff, which wasn’t the case for me. I share your philosophy about not reading depressing books! Thank you for your thoughtful perspective and I look forward to reading more of your reviews. I will be archive-diving. :)) P.S. If you haven’t read “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” I’d recommend it as a lighter read with some laugh-out-loud moments. Not a classic for the ages, but still fun and worth reading.

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  6. I read the book over a year ago. I took two things away from the book. 1. If you just ask for help, how much individuals are willing to help you out the best they can. 2. How important communication is in a relationship.

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  7. This is such a weird coincidence–I got an update on this thread as I was working on a client’s upcoming book. Tentative title: An Unlikely Pilgrim.
    Our book is nonfiction, based on his dad’s journals about the family’s experiences living on a religious commune in 1950s Paraguay. We’re working on a website for it now: http://www.seekingtogether.net.
    By the way–ants freak me out! Especially in bed!

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  8. Okay, so I finished the book and I have to take the other side. I really enjoyed it! I read it as a story of redemption. Ultimately, Harold isn’t trying to save Queenie, he’s trying to save himself. His life has been awful and more importantly, he has been awful. But, it’s never too late to change and Queenie’s impending death is enough to spur him to change. Yes, he’s not prepared as he should be for this journey, but are any of us prepared as we should be for our current journey? Clearly, there was a lot of interest in his shoes. These shoes were inadequate and brought him great suffering but they were also essential to his redemption. He persevered with them, he learned to adapt and to overcome with them, and finally he learned to accept them. Again, the spiritual ties were obvious.
    I also greatly enjoyed the band of misfits who hijack his walk and try to make him a star. What a great commentary on our media in today’s world as well as all of those looking for their 15 minutes of fame! It was also fitting to me that they eventually left him after all, this was his journey to personal redemption, not theirs.
    Perhaps the only part of the book that fell a little short for me was his ultimate rendezvous with Queenie. I guess I was hoping for a bit more – a thank you to Queenie? But alas, that wasn’t the character of Harold.
    Ultimately, I felt uplifted by the story. We all are on a journey through life. This journey is not easy. We may not be happy with decisions we’ve made or who we’ve become but it is never too late for change or to find happiness.

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  9. Excellent comments, George, and I’m glad you pointed out the positive messages that can be found in this book. I, too, thought the author’s commentary about the media and people’s obsession with fame was wickedly spot on!

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  10. I am so far behind, but I wanted to thank you for the recommendations. I really enjoyed the book and the relationships and characters. It was a super quick read, but I just haven’t posted. I need to hurry up and get started on June’s book!

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  11. I read it when you first mentioned it, and mostly liked it. Here are my thoughts several months later. I thought there was redemption in the end for Harold and his wife…I read it as a story of the two of them becoming strangers…how one mistake leads to another and we can’t just say “let’s start fresh”…we can’t undo what has happened…but we can forgive ourselves and our partner, and be tender to one another again. The groupie section was a distraction for me, kind of a relentless pounding into my head that each of us needs to find our own truth.

    BTW..Bernadette is a great read!!! Thanks, as always, for doing this.

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