Book Group Debut: Rachel Joyce’s “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”
Posted by: Misha Stone
Kaite always has reliable crystal ball information about what book groups will soon be snatching up and what they’ll be swooning over. I have one to add: Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
It’s already being hailed as a read-alike for Helen Simonson’s charming debut and book group darling, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. I can see that Joyce’s book might appeal to readers who enjoyed Pettigrew because it also features an older man, post-retirement who discovers things about the world and himself that changes his life for the better.
But in this case, Harold Fry is a man who has literally never taken a stand. Harold has lived a staid, predictable existence; he has lived his life in order to not make waves of any kind. So it comes as a surprise, most of all to himself, when a letter arrives from an old colleague from the brewery, Queenie Hennessy, telling him she is dying, and Harold finds himself deciding on the way to the post box that he will hand deliver his reply to Queenie even though it means walking 600 miles across rural England.
That Harold leaves without telling his wife, Maureen, that he is going to take weeks to deliver a letter to Queenie only highlights the strain and silence in their 45-year-long marriage. As Harold walks, with little gear and money, he reflects on his life, his marriage, his outwardly ambivalent relationship with his son, David, and takes stock in a number of ways. It seems that most of Harold’s life has been in avoidance of reflection, that he has lived avoiding thinking and feeling.
Harold’s pilgrimage takes shape as he imagines that in walking he may be able to keep Queenie alive. His trek also captures the media’s eye and he becomes a local celebrity, even inspiring an entourage. But Joyce unfolds Harold’s inner journey with grace, charm and emotional depth.
I finished this book in tears–happy and sad–and knew it would be a great hit with book groups as soon as I did. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry deserves the same word-of-mouth success as Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.