A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
Ever since I was a young girl, the start of summer seems to spark a desire to read. As the thermometer soars skyward and the sun blazes overhead, there’s nothing better than cracking the spine of a good book and getting lost in a new world. During the school year, I’m compelled to read non-fiction as if 9 months of the year are designed to contribute to a knowledge base in measurable ways. But come summer time, I’m a kid in a candy store and the more colorful a book appears, the better.
I got a strong start for the 2014 season about 2 weeks ago in mid-May. Temps in North Carolina went from damp and chilly 65 degrees to crazy hot 90’s seemingly overnight and something in me screamed, “Get to the library, now!” I returned with an overflowing stack of adult fiction and it’s been crazy fun getting acquainted with some new friends.
One of these happens to live within the pages of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Harold, a sad sack of an Englishman, one day decides to skip the mailbox and walk his letter to the recipient. The story unfolds as he begins a 500-mile journey north to visit a friend dying of cancer. As expected, he meets a lot of interesting characters along the way and learns something new about himself. But where this book differs from so many others is in Harold’s recollections of past events and how those encounters have shaped his life. When his journey catches the attention of the British press, many would-be-pilgrims show up to join Harold on his walk. He yearns to remain independent and private but also wants to be seen as a good listener and perhaps provide others space to work through their personal issues. And then, there’s the matter of Maureen who remains at home, a strange and detached wife. Eventually, they reconnect during the walk and memories come flooding back.
His hand passed her a bundled handkerchief, and Maureen nipped her face into its crumpled warmth. It smelled of him, and long ago. It was no good. The tears came.
“It’s just seeing you again,” she said, “You look so well.”
“You look well too, Maureen.”
I don’t, Harold. I look like someone left behind.”
For me, the sum of the story hinges on this conversation. It’s not that we don’t change for fear of affecting the status quo—it’s that when we do take a bold step and move forward everything is different; including those things that we choose to leave behind. And it begs the question: “How now will I live?” The book offers an unexpected twist near the end but doesn’t rely on cheap emotions to hook the reader. In that respect, it seems so very British to me.
And with the end of this first great book of summer, I grab the next one on the table: Jonathan Tropper’s, This Is Where I Leave You. A fitting title after a successful pilgrimage.
What else am I reading this summer? Check out the list here