Summary and book reviews of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

A Novel

by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce X
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2012, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 368 pages

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Book Summary

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.

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.

1
Harold and the Letter

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelled of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbors’ stockade fencing.

“Harold!” called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. “Post!”

He thought he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday. The vacuum tumbled into silence, and his wife appeared, looking cross, with a letter. She sat opposite Harold.

Maureen was a slight woman with a cap of silver hair and a brisk walk. When they first met, nothing had pleased him more than to make her laugh. To watch her neat frame collapse into ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why does the story that the garage girl tells Harold affect him so deeply? Do you think Harold would have mused on faith and gone on this tremendous journey had the garage girl told Harold that her aunt died of cancer anyway?
  2. How does Maureen's relationship with Rex allow her the perspective to understand Harold's decision to walk?
  3. The publicity that Harold receives on his journey often feels like a curse. What are some benefits that come out of the media coverage?
  4. What does Harold's choice to live off the land and other people's kindness mean to him?
  5. In what ways is the incident at the beach with his son representative of Harold's fears about himself? In what ways do those fears reflect the reality?
  6. "He ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

This novel is the epitome of the expression "stop and smell the roses." Harold's pilgrimage is reflective, heart -breaking, and most of all about hope and faith..continued

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Media Reviews

Erica Wagner, The Times (UK)
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.

Publishers Weekly
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.'

Kirkus Reviews
Manipulative but moving, for readers who don't mind having their strings pulled.

Booklist
Starred Review. 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.

Library Journal
A great novel; essential reading for fans of literary fiction.

Author Blurb Tiffany Baker, author of The Little Giant of Aberdeen County
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry takes the most ordinary and unassuming of men and turns him into a hero for us all. To go on this journey with Harold will not only break your heart, it might just also heal it.

Author Blurb Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank
When it seems almost too late, Harold Fry opens his battered heart and lets the world rush in. This funny, poignant story about an ordinary man on an extraordinary journey moved and inspired me.

Author Blurb Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife
There's tremendous heart in this debut novel by Rachel Joyce, as she probes questions that are as simple as they are profound: Can we begin to live again, and live truly, as ourselves, even in middle age, when all seems ruined? Can we believe in hope when hope seems to have abandoned us? I found myself laughing through tears, rooting for Harold at every step of his journey. I'm still rooting for him.

Author Blurb Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Marvelous! I held my breath at his every blister and cramp, and felt as if by turning the pages, I might help his impossible quest succeed.

Author Blurb Claire Tomalin, author of Charles Dickens: A Life
The odyssey of a simple man... original, subtle and touching.

Reader Reviews

Kathy

An ordinary man's extraordinary journey
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the beautifully written story of an ordinary man's extraordinary cross-country walk to make amends with an old friend. During Harold's journey, I found myself wishing and praying that Harold finds his ...   Read More
Emily

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
I loved this book the first time through -- the language was often eloquent, with subtle humor intertwined with profound observations on the human condition. I recommended it for my book group, so I read it again, and loved it even more. I was ...   Read More
Rita H. (Centennial, CO)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
This is a truly excellent book. I thought it sounded rather an odd story when I first heard about it but was captivated by the end of the first chapter. There are so many excellent life messages in this book which Harold and his wife Maureen learn ...   Read More
Nancy G. (Newton, KS)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
As we enter the world of Harold Fry, we are taken down a road of self-revelation and discovery that will hold the reader in its grasp. Like the peeling of an onion, each new chapter brings us more of his story. Starting out on an unlikely journey to ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Pilgrimages, Quests & Other Long Journeys

In Rachel Joyce's debut novel, Harold Fry sets off on what the book title refers to as an "unlikely pilgrimage"; but can his journey correctly be called a pilgrimage if it doesn't have a religious destination?

Although most of us probably think of a pilgrimage as having religious connotations, the word has its roots in the Latin peregrinus, meaning coming from foreign parts. Thus, the lead definition in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) of a pilgrim is simply "one who travels from place to place: a wanderer, a sojourner".

MapMany reviewers refer to Harold's journey as a quest. Is that also an accurate description?

According to the OED, a quest is a search for something - such as the quest for the Holy Grail or for the...

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