What a little gem THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce has turned out to be.
I would never have picked this novel up if I hadn’t gotten a tip from someone I respect. I am happy to say it is just delightful. I can totally see book club’s embracing this novel. And I have been wondering how many marriages might be saved by it.
“The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday.” The first sentence of this lovely novel gives you only an inkling of its content. But it’s a good inkling at that. You see, the writer of the letter is none other than Queenie Hennessy. You are wondering who Queenie is. Harold worked with Queenie years ago and, Queenie did Harold a monumental favor. One that went unacknowledged. But Harold hasn’t seen or heard from Queenie for many, many years.
Harold will be walking to Berwick Upon Tweed in the most northern part of England. He starts out from his home in Kingsbridge, which is in the most southern part of England. Why has he decided to walk? He is convinced Queenie will live as long as he continues to walk.
Harold calls the hospice where Queenie is being cared for and speaks to “the voice.” “Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.”
And so Harold’s pilgrimage of hundreds of miles begins: on foot, and alone. Maureen, his wife, doesn’t remember Queenie and has chosen to stay at home. She doesn’t believe Harold will really do this, at any rate. And has he lost his mind?
Along the way, Harold is plagued by every sort of ache and pain imaginable. I felt his every blister as it festered up. My body ached with each step he took. I was actually exhausted at the finish of this amazing little read. Harold’s trek wore me out.
And, oh, the cast of characters Harold meets along the way. Even a stray dog joins the foray towards the end of the story. Each one adds to the flavor of the tale and gives it that bit of substance it needs to push it along.
Maureen is home questioning her love for Harold. She’s wondering what happened to their marriage. She talks to their son, David, quietly, and we become slowly aware there is more to this than meets the eye.
Meanwhile, Harold is suffering unmitigated physical pain as he continues to torture his 65-year-old body. And his mind is going wild. He is remembering things that happened to him since childhood. We find out about Harold’s parents and how unfit they both were. And he worries that he was not a good parent, himself. But he had no mentor. Harold wonders if Maureen still loves him, and convinces himself that she must not.
I can’t help but wonder how many couples who have been married for 40 years question their feelings for their spouse. Wonder what they might have done with their lives instead. And realize they have taken their spouse for granted.
You will find yourself rooting for Harold to finish his pilgrimage. Will he be able to do what he has set out to do: keep Queenie alive? Compelling writing and a unique heart-warming story will surely make this one a hit.
I got my advance reading copy from the generous people at Random House Publishing Group. Thanks so much!