Monday, September 17, 2012

book review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The backstory: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the first novel by Rachel Joyce, was on the 2012 Booker Prize longlist.

The basics: When Harold Fry, a retired man who lives in southern England, receives a letter from an old co-worker and friend, Queenie, saying goodbye because she is quite ill, he sets out to post his reply letter. Instead of stopping at the mailbox, however, Harold keeps walking so he can say goodbye in person. Along the way, he remembers, thinks and meets a quirk cast of characters.

My thoughts: From the first pages of this novel, there is a familiarity to its characters. Harold and his wife, Maureen, seem ordinary and the reader's first glimpse into their lives features the mundanesness of life. Rachel Joyce's observational prose, however, elevates the story. This early passage illustrates the novel itself: "He knew he was going to reach Berwick, and that all he had to do was to place one foot in front of the other. The simplicity of it was joyful. If he kept going forward, he would of course arrive." There is a simplicity to this novel, but there is also a joy to it. While the story itself is straightforward, Harold's interior journey is not.

In spite of its charms, The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry fell flat for me at times. The cast of characters Harold meets along the way became dull. Harold himself is the only constant in this novel, and I never fully warmed to him. His interior monologue featured what felt like a faux innocence about his journey and his life. Many will adore and celebrate Harold, but my inner cynic rolled its eyes at times when this tale became too sweet. What saves this novel from these potential pitfalls is Joyce's writing. As my cynicism became more pronounced, a passage full of wisdom about travel and life would bring me back.

Favorite passage:  "Harold thought of all the things in life he’d let go. The small smiles. The offers of a beer. The people he had passed over and over again, in the brewery car park, or on the street, without lifting his head. The neighbours whose forwarding addresses he had never kept. Worse; the son who didn’t speak to him and the wife he had betrayed. He remembered his father in the nursing home, and his mother’s suitcase by the door. And now here was a woman who twenty years ago had proved herself a friend. Was this how it went? That just at the moment when he wanted to do something, it was too late? That all the pieces of a life must eventually be surrendered, as if in truth they amounted to nothing? The knowledge of his helplessness pressed down on him so heavily he felt weak. It wasn’t enough to send a letter. There must be a way to make a difference."

The verdict: While I never fully connected with Harold himself, I did enjoy his journey. At times I felt dismissive of this novel as 'charming' or 'quaint', and while it is both of those things, Joyce's writing elevates this novel. She is a writer to watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 338 pages
Publication date: July 24, 2012
Source: purchased

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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23 comments:

  1. I was beginning to think I was the lone cynic out there because I just didn't love this book. At all. As you said, I never fully connected to Harold, and after a while, the journey was dull, and the other characters annoying.

    Though parts were enjoyable, I'm not its most vocal fan.

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    1. I'm with you. I think if I had read it before the hype, I might have enjoyed it more, but I kept thinking, "is this it?" It was fine, but it didn't wow me.

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  2. Okay, I'm thrilled to see your review and Jen's comment -- I passed on this because it seemed too quirky/cutesey for my tastes, but after all the raves I wondered if I was delusional for not being intrigued. You two gave me a reason to pass! :)

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  3. Your is the first review that I have seen that doesn't rave about this book, and I am really appreciative about that! I have it, and haven't read it, and I had thought it might not work for me. I like quaint, but only to a certain degree. I will have to see what I think, but I am glad for your honesty!

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    1. Zibilee, I'll certainly be curious to hear your thoughts once you read it!

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  4. Like the others, yours is the first I've seen that wasn't absolutely glowing. I was actually surprised based on the buzz I was seeing that this didn't make the short list. Connection with main characters is huge for me. Will have to wait for paperback!

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    1. Trish, I think The Lighthouse, also a 'walking novel' was seen by most to be the superior literary novel, so I wasn't surprised to see only one of them on the longlist. I hope The Lighthouse can find a U.S. audience now!

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  5. Oh, dear! I was one of the many who loved this book, and to be honest, I sloppily gushed about how much I did! :) I loved Harold and did connect with him, but it was almost instantly, so maybe that's why it resonated so much with me? Either way, on to the next one! :)

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    1. Natalie--I think I'm in the minority on this one! At times I did like Harold, but at times I didn't quite believe he could be real. This novel definitely hinges on him, so if you loved him, I can see why you also loved the novel more than I did!

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  6. I just started listening to this after seeing so many gushy reviews. I was kind of expecting charming and cute and I'm getting that so far so perhaps it will work for me. I just want him to buy some hiking shoes!

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    1. Jenners--yes on the hiking shoes! In some ways it was reminiscent of both The Unnamed and Wild, and I wonder if having read both of those the walking seemed less novel to me. I'll be curious how you fare. I also think this novel could be good on audio!

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  7. I loved how well Joyce's writing matched the tale she was saying. The simplicity and joy that was being associated with Harold's walk was well reflected in the simplicity and joy of her passages. I don't often come across books like that - where the writing feels well-matched with the main character.

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    1. Aths, that's a really interesting comment you made, and I agree with you. One title that immediately popped into my mind regarding writing and a main character is Gillespie and I. It's certainly not gentle, but the writing is such a fascinating link to the main character.

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  8. I feel in love with the sad sap and his wife early on:)

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    1. Diane, I think Harold really drives (or walks!) this story. I'm glad it worked for you.

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  9. I liked this one much more than I thought I would, but then I'd just come off of a bad experience with Wild. I didn't care for the part where he picked up all of the followers, but once he ditched them I was happy again.

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    1. Jill, I had the opposite reaction I think. I adored Wild, so this one felt tame and disappointing to me. Perhaps one can't love both?

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  10. The media circus part was my least favorite, but necessary because that is what would happen if such a thing happened in real life! Overall, I found it to be a very quiet, introspective kind of book. I enjoyed it.

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  11. I didn't really connect with Harold either but I think for me it was just a case of wrong book, wrong time for me. Loved your review, as always!

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  12. You know, I'm glad to have read a not entirely glowing review of this book. I'm excited to read it, but also want to approach it with reasonable expectations.

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  13. I always feel nervous about books described as quaint or charming because they can be super cute or in some cases I have found them to be really disappointing and just not my style, lol.

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  14. dismissive of this novel as 'charming' or 'quaint', and while it is both of those things, Joyce's writing elevates this novel.

    This is the type of book I often like, so I am looking forward to reading this now. I havent' read many reviews, but I know they are mostly positive. Hopefully, I'll join the bandwagon!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!