Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a story of a man who breaks from the monotony of his daily life to walk across England to see a friend dying of cancer. Despite the rather macabre premise, I thought it would be a largely whimsical story because of the absurdity of Harold’s decision: a non-athletic man traveling 600 miles on foot out of the blue. Joyce’s novel turns out to be much more than a profile of an eccentric man who decides to walk because “it’s a nice day.” The novel develops into a moving story of friendship, love, loss, and ultimately forgiveness.
As Harold winds his way through England’s hills and flat country, from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, the novel slowly reveals why this man in his golden years feels compelled to walk 600 miles from his wife of 45 years, Maureen, toward another woman from his past, Queenie Hennessey, a woman for whom he claims to have never felt any romantic interest. Harold is only sixty-five years old, hardly old by today’s standards, but he feels like an old man in many ways. Finally facing a lifetime of regrets, Harold believes he is doing something bigger than himself; some would call his conviction faith, others would call it foolishness. His journey produces a fascinating tale either way.
I love Joyce’s descriptive writing, detailing the scenery of the English countryside and its quaint towns and inhabitants, describing what Harold learns from each person he meets. This is a novel about “big ideas” (if you’re reading it on a Kindle, the lessons will jump out at you if you have the “popular highlight” feature turned on). These are lessons that will appeal to a broad audience, an appeal that will likely withstand the test of time, but the incorporation of so many explicit lessons felt a bit heavy-handed at times, like I was being lectured to at a high school graduation about what’s important in life. A gentle, well-written lecture, but a lecture nonetheless. It does, however, make this book a perfect choice for a book club discussion; there’s a lot of meat here, if you want to talk about it.
While there is much to love about this novel, I must admit that my favorite part had nothing to do with the story, but rather how it brought back memories of my own walk through the English countryside, a much shorter walk, only 100 miles through the Cotswolds. My husband and I embarked on this walk (beginning at Chipping Campden and ending at Bath) after our wedding (our anniversary was yesterday) between taking the Bar Exam and starting our first legal jobs. It was the perfect trip–moderate outdoor activity (10 miles a day) and quaint towns with interesting histories. We stayed in bed and breakfasts, including in some homes that were older than the United States. Each of our hosts, brimming with pride, served us enormous English breakfasts every morning, and tended to assume we preferred coffee because we are American, even though we only drink tea (I am half South Asian, after all).
During Harold’s journey, which includes some of the towns we traveled through, one person Harold passes debates the merits of the Cotswold Way, concluding, “Of course the Cotswold Trail is overrated. Give me Dartmoor any day.” His wife replies, “Personally I liked the Cotswolds… I know it’s more flat, but it’s romantic.”
Indeed, the Cotswold Way is romantic: 100 miles of scenic countryside, including sheep shit, muddy cornfields, belligerent cows, and an obstacle course of fences, can only bring two people together. I would love to go again with my husband, maybe for our anniversary a few years down the line, when our children are a little older. Maybe we’ll try Dartmoor next time!
Here are a few pictures from our trip: