The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce, Random House, 2012, 320 pp
I was surprised that I liked this unlikely novel as much as I did. I am not a crier so I give Rachel Joyce plenty of credit for making me cry so many times. I could have felt manipulated I suppose, but I didn't.
Harold Fry had so much misfortune in his life. The few good things that happened to him were not enough to make up for the bad stuff. When he decides to make his long walk of more than 600 miles to repay an obligation to one of the two good people in his life, he is able to get outside of himself enough to gain some perspective. Walking will do that.
I read the book for a reading group discussion. A close friend who is also in this group disliked the novel completely, wondering why Harold didn't just drive to see his old friend and get there in a few hours. Others found the pacing of the story problematical.
Having recently read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I was willing to believe that walking was an essential element. I did not mind the slow and fractured revelations of Harold's misfortunes. In fact, it was the juxtaposition of the walking pace with the drama of his life that kept the story from plodding.
I have never read Pilgrim's Progress except for a few pages many years ago which bored me to insensibility, but the title, the events of Harold's pilgrimage and a quote from John Bunyan at the beginning, made me compare the two while reading. The author has said that Pilgrim's Progress was not a conscious model for her except in that Harold is an ordinary guy, an everyman.
In any case, I liked the walk. I was impressed by the ways that Harold's encounters with strangers opened his eyes to what actually makes up life. I wasn't sure about the final scenes between Harold and his wife.
Probably the story works best for older women than anyone else. Its main emotional theme is regret, a feeling more prevalent in later life than when one is young. At least for me, it was Harold's consuming regrets that made me cry. That he became free of his regrets made me cry too. By the end, I decided to let my own regrets go, so thank you to Rachel Joyce for that.
(The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)