Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

13th August 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Random House in coordination with TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

From the back cover:

Meet Harold Fry…recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then, one morning, the mail arrives and there is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. Thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick upon Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessy will live.

Ahh, Harold Fry. Perfectly British, the novel made the Man Booker longlist, quite a feat for a debut novelist. And though everyone I can possibly think of loved this novel…I did not.

The writing is good. Harold Fry, admirable. His painful past is lamentable and is introduced in well-paced revelations. However, even with all that, I did not quite like Harold Fry because I felt I did not really know him. Granted, this sounds odd as I just told you his past is revealed and his character honorable. But instead of feeling a kinship with Harold, I felt increasingly distanced from him as his observations bordered on kitschy needlepoint pillow fare:

He had learned it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.

Quite right, Harold, and there are easily two dozen pins on Pinterest which say virtually the same thing, as does Joyce here, in another passage:

It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday.

Notice, I subconsciously introduced this quote by mentioning Joyce, and I think that is my biggest stumbling block: it didn’t feel as though Harold were making these observations but rather that Joyce was so inserted into the novel that I was being told how Joyce thought I should think Harold felt. If that makes sense.

In the first half of the book, these observations were touching, and there are several truly humbling moments when people open up to Harold and tell him about themselves in poignant ways; however, by the time the reader learns just what Harold has kept pent up within himself, these run-ins seem trite and forced, much like the group who, mainly for selfish reasons, decides to follow Harold in his pilgrimage. In other words, I wish Joyce had simply shown me these things instead of told me again and again.

However, this is quite possibly a case where I’m being much too cynical because, as I mentioned, many of those whose opinions I respect really enjoyed this book, as did most of the people on Goodreads [add it to your shelf if you like]. In fact, after finishing the book, I will say I had to really question myself: Am I unused to this kind of sacrifice and faith? Have I reached the point where sentiment seems manipulative? If so, what does that say about me?

I’m not sure I like the answers, and that, in and of itself, makes The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry an interesting read.

Check out others’ opinions on the book through TLC Book Tours.

  • Annesbookgarden

    I read this book recently and I did enjoy it more than you did. I have had the same experience as you though where I have read a much acclaimed book and not liked it at all. I just tell myself that not everyone will like every book and there is nothing wrong with that at all.

    • Exactly. To each her own. And, I must say, I really did enjoy parts of this. It was only about halfway through that I thought it grew tiresome.

  • Brooke Lee

    I really appreciate your honesty here and feel that this book would have affected me in the same way. I often find books emotionally kitschy or even manipulative to the point that I’m taken out of the story. I do think my personal brand of cynicism is partially to blame, but there are some emotional roller coasters that awe me with their bravery and honesty so I know my cynical ways can be overcome. Great review!

    • Yes! That’s just it. Sometimes it works for me. For example, I loved The Book Thief, and many felt it was manipulative. I didn’t. It broke me in many ways, and I thought it was beautiful.

      Cynics unite! πŸ™‚ This particular brand of sentiment just didn’t work for me.

  • I’ll be interested to read this. I’m going to attempt some of the Booker books this year (my copy of Will Self’s Umbrella should be here any day), and this seemed this year’s entry into the list as it’s annual “small, reserved and English” entry.

    • That’s a perfect way to describe it. I’m not much of one for list reading, but I am curious about a few of the titles, for sure.

  • I think there was a lot riding on Harold’s little pilgrimage and sometimes when desperation becomes the drive for doing something, the sentiment behind such an act can sound manipulative, but sometimes those sentiments can be epiphanies too.

    • This is true, and they were certainly epiphanies for him, even if most of them were things we hear again and again. Maybe, as you say, it’s the desperation that reveals their truth. Interesting.

  • steph_h

    Sorry to hear this was a bummer! I actually saw this one in Nashville’s digital collection a few weeks back and flagged it because anything that is so obviously British is going to strike my fancy… but this sounds like it would be overly saccharine and schmaltzy for my tastes. I did get a good guffaw over your “Pinterest burn” though! πŸ˜‰

    • I couldn’t help it. πŸ™‚ But, I can also see what Tina is saying, that for him (Harold) those things are truths and not just trite -isms. I don’t know. I’d be curious to see what you think.

  • Andi

    I kinda have my doubts about this one, and that has far more to do with me than it does the book. Thanks for an honest review!

  • Silver’s Reviews

    I liked this book. πŸ™‚

    NEW FOLLOWER of your blog. Love the stripes and your posts.

    Silver’s Reviews

    • Elizabeth! Thanks so much for stopping by and for commenting. πŸ™‚

  • Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  • Pingback: Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, on tour July and August, 2012 | TLC Book Tours()