Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Joyce)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Rachel Joyce, 2012
Random House
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812993295



Summary
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 within the stack of quotidian minutiae 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.
 
Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And 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 Hennessey will live.
 
Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.
 
And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.
 
A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Rachel Joyce is an award-winning writer of more than twenty plays for BBC Radio 4. She started writing after a twenty-year acting career, in which she performed leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and won multiple awards. Rachel Joyce lives in Gloucestershire on a farm with her family and is at work on her second novel. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
Rachel Joyce's first novel...sounds twee, but it's surprisingly steely, even inspiring, the kind of quirky book you want to shepherd into just the right hands. If your friends don't like it, you may have to stop returning their calls for a little while until you can bring yourself to forgive them.... [Joyce] has a lovely sense of the possibilities of redemption. In this bravely unpretentious and unsentimental tale, she's cleared space where miracles are still possible.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Harold’s journey is ordinary and extraordinary; it is a journey through the self, through modern society, through time and landscape. It is a funny book, a wise book, a charming book—but never cloying. It’s a book with a  savage twist—and yet never seems manipulative. Perhaps because Harold himself is just wonderful.... I’m telling you now: I love this book.
Erica Wagner - The Times (UK)


When Harold Fry, a morbidly shy, retired British brewery salesman, decides on a whim to walk the distance between his home in southern England and the hospice where his long-lost friend, Queenie Hennessey, is dying of cancer, he has no idea that his act will change his life and inspire hundreds of people. The motivation behind the trek and why he is burdened by guilt and the need to atone, are gradually revealed in this initially captivating but finally pedestrian first novel by English writer Joyce. During Harold’s arduous trek, which covers 627 miles and 87 days, he uncoils the memory of his destructive rampage for which Queenie took the blame. He also acknowledges the unraveling of his marriage and his anguish about the lack of intimacy with his son. Plagued by doubt and exhaustion, he undergoes a dark night of the soul, but in the tradition of classical pilgrimages, he ultimately achieves spiritual affirmation. Joyce writes with precision about the changing landscape as Harold trudges his way across England. Early chapters of the book are beguiling, but a final revelation tests credulity, and the sentimental ending may be an overdose of what the Brits call “pudding.”
Publishers Weekly


Soon after his retirement from a brewery in a quiet English village, Harold Fry receives a surprising letter. It's from beloved friend and colleague Queenie Hennessy, whom he hasn't heard from in 20 years, writing from a distant terminal cancer ward to say good-bye. This letter returns Harold to a horrifically painful part of his past, threatens his already troubled marriage, and ultimately leads to a crisis that casts into doubt everything he thinks he knows about himself. He decides to embark on a 600-mile walk to say goodbye to Queenie in person. Joyce, a former actress and acclaimed BBC scriptwriter here publishing her first novel, depicts Harold's personal crisis and the extraordinary pilgrimage it generates in masterly fashion, exploring psychological complexities with compassion and insight. The result is a novel of deep beauty and wisdom about the human condition; Harold, a deeply sympathetic protagonist, has much to teach us. Verdict: A great novel; essential reading for fans of literary fiction. —Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT
Library Journal


Spontaneity has never been Harold Fry’s strong suit, especially once he retired. Just ask his long-suffering wife, Maureen. So imagine her surprise when Harold abruptly decides to walk 500 miles to the north of England in a naive attempt to save a dying woman.... Solitary walks are perfect for imagining how one might set the world to rights, and Harold does just that, although not always with uplifting results, as he ruminates on missed opportunities and failed relationships. Accomplished BBC playwright Joyce’s debut novel is a gentle and genteel charmer, brimming with British quirkiness yet quietly haunting in its poignant and wise examination of love and devotion. Sure to become a book-club favorite.
Booklist


Those with the patience to accompany the protagonist on this meandering journey will receive an emotional payoff at the end. The debut novel by an award-winning British radio playwright (and actor) offers an allegory that requires many leaps of faith, while straddling the line between the charming and cloying (as well as the comic and melodramatic). Manipulative but moving, for readers who don't mind having their strings pulled.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers talking points for The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry:

1. Talk about the obvious—why Harold Fry never returns from the mailbox. Is he experiencing a mid-life crisis, or spiritual crisis...or what? Has anything like that ever happened to you—a snap decision that turned out to be not just of-the-moment, but momentous as well?

2. What is the significance, thematically, of Harold's yacht shoes?

3. "Life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time." One of the themes in Unlikely Pilgrimage is how a seemingly ordinary life can take on extraordinary aspects. Do you consider your own life ordinary or extraordinary? In what way might we see our own lives or, say the lives of our neighbors, as remarkable?

4. How has Harold's past—his upbringing—shaped his adult life, especially his relationship with his wife and son?

5. Talk about the evolution of Harold Fry. What is his state of mind as he begins the journey, and how does he change during his long walk? What does he learn—about life and about himself?

6. Discuss the marital relationship, at the book's beginning, between Harold and Maureen. Maureen wants to believe that Harold's desertion has more to do with Queenie than with the state of the couple's marriage. Is she right...or not?

7. Why do couples continue in a relationship that no longer seems to fulfill a mutual need for either?

8. Describe Harold's relationship with his son, David.

9. What was Harold's relationship with Queenie...and in what way does he feel he betrayed her?

10. What does the waitress mean when she tells Harold that "if we don't go mad once in a while, there's no hope"? Have you ever felt like that?

11. What role does religious belief play in this novel?

12. What is Rachel Joyce satirizing as crowds begin to gather and Harold's journey becomes a cause celebre—with its t-shirts, Tweets, and Facebook posts? How do the people who join Harold in his trek see his journey—what are they looking for, or what do they expect from Harold? Why do the crowds eventually leave him behind?

13. What do Harold and Maureen come to understand about one another and marriage—and how does their marriage change? What do they come to realize about one another?

14. Why is Harold's journey called a "pilgrimage" in the title?

15. What is the relationship between the epigraph from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and this contemporary novel? Why does Rachel Joyce use Bunyan's book at both beginning and end?

16. Do you find the novel's end satisfying? Why or why not?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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