As Julia mentioned in her post early in December, it was decided only at the last minute that I would choose the December book. I had been eyeing The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce for some time (I gleaned from the book description that it was about an elderly British man, and I was pretty well sold… did I mention I have a soft spot for Brit lit?), and this seemed like the perfect reason to finally pick it up. Not to mention the fact that it was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. It seemed like an easy, uncomplicated, quick read; ideal for the holiday season.
Harold Fry is an unlikely hero, who embarks rather suddenly on an unlikely pilgrimage. He is recently retired, living an ordinary, stale life. He is disconnected from society; he avoids engaging with the outside world, and his marriage has deteriorated to the point that he barely communicates with his wife. One morning, he receives a letter from an old friend who has written to let him know that she is dying of cancer. Harold pens a generic note of condolence, and sets off for the mailbox in his yachting shoes and a light jacket. When he gets to the mailbox, he decides to continue walking to the next one, intending to mail it there. But he can’t stop—mailboxes become towns, and towns become counties. Unwittingly, he has decided to walk the length of England, from Kingsbridge to Berwick-upon-Tweed, to deliver his letter in person. Along the way, he encounters many different people. They see in him what he does not see in himself—an open, kind man—and their secrets and stories take refuge in his inspiring story. We see in his interactions with these strangers how Harold evolves over the course of his walk. At first he is reserved and avoids interacting with people or asking for help, but, over time, he begins to see that “everyone is the same, and also unique; and that this is the dilemma of being human.” He learns to talk to people, to ask for help, and to give help in return.
Harold’s pilgrimage takes us on a physical journey across England and on an emotional journey across his life. Harold is moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, while in his head he is going back in his memories, rehashing and reliving the past. Throughout his walk, he faces his demons while gaining an appreciation for the world around him. He learns that “life is very different when you walk through it”. Joyce’s story-telling is honest and open, and she shows us how intricately the sweetness and anguish of life are intertwined.
There were a few girls in our book club who absolutely loved this book and others who absolutely did not. For the most part, we found that it was pleasant but generally mediocre. Many found that the story was slow in the beginning, predictable where it should have been shocking, and anticlimactic in the end. We always rate our books out of 5, following the Goodreads scale, and most of us rated it between 2.5 and 3. It was a nice enough story, but not a whole lot more than that.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a simple yet touching story of the hardships of life, love, loss and regret. In a typically British fashion, it does not show the world through rose-coloured glasses. Joyce paints an unapologetic picture of the realities of lifelong relationships; realities that many young people, who are searching and yearning for their one-true-fairy-tale-love, may prefer to ignore.
While this book may at times seem bleak or depressing, overall it is quite uplifting. It reminds us that it is never too late to make a change, and that even the most ordinary can become extraordinary.