The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: a Novel by Rachel Joyce

Jacket

I just looked this book up in our library catalog to find a picture of the cover and saw that its genre link was “humorous stories”. I wonder if the cataloger read the same book I did? This book is many things – sweet, sad, nostalgic, heartbreaking are all words that instantly come to mind – but humorous is NOT a word that I’d throw in, no matter how long I thought of words to describe it. There is humor in there, certainly, but it’s the dry, understated stiff-upper-lipped British kind. Anyway. Harold is an old man with many regrets. He and his wife Maureen barely communicate at all, and he feels as if he cannot exist without annoying her. He receives a goodbye letter from Queenie, a woman he used to work with years ago who is dying in hospice. He decides to send her a letter back, but as he is walking to mail the letter, he decides on the spur of the moment that he needs to go to see her in person. On foot. So despite the fact that he’s wearing a light jacket and boat shoes, and that it’s 600 miles, he does.

As he walks, he thinks. And as he thinks, we learn how Harold got to this point in his life, and the events that shaped his marriage into the prison it has become. We learn who Queenie was and why she was important to Harold. We learn about Harold and Maureen’s son. And as he meets person after person outside of his normal circle, Harold learns more about himself and somehow manages to put his life into perspective. After a lifetime of keeping to himself, he learns to ask for help, and how to give it to others. And as she sits home alone, Maureen thinks and learns as well, developing a friendship with her widower neighbor and rediscovering an old hobby. And that’s the joy of this story, that this older couple with so many hurts saved up over the years can finally realize that all of the things they have been blaming one another for are either their own damn fault or nobody’s fault at all, and it makes no difference which.

I won’t spoil the reveals for you, but many of them triggered a few tears. But despite the fact that the book made me sad, I liked it anyway. It reminds me of Kaye Gibbons’ books (Ellen Foster, A Virtuous Woman) that way. A good hurt.

Now that I think about it, there are some humorous parts in the book, such as when Harold’s pilgrimage becomes “news” and he gains a following sort of like Forrest Gump does. So many people show up to walk with him that he dreams of sneaking away in the night, but how he does finally lose them is pretty funny, looking back at it.

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