I have been trying to cram this last month of 2012 with books published this year, books that I have heard really good things about, that have received a lot of praise, critically and from the "average reader". One of these books is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. Published in July, it has a 4.01 average rating on Goodreads at the time of this review, with over 8,500 ratings. It made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize. These all seem to be good qualifications, so I decided to add it to my winter break list of books.
The titular Harold is a recently retired man who receives a letter in the mail from an old co-worker and friend, Queenie Hennessy. She is dying and wants to say goodbye. Harold quickly writes her a response and walks to the nearest mailbox when he feels the urge to keep walking. He is reluctant to send his response and continues to walk. He stops for a burger and the girl who serves him talks about the importance of faith and belief of recovery in fighting terminal illness (Queenie has cancer). Her story inspires Harold and he decides that he must walk the 500 miles from his home to Queenie's hospice because it will give her something to believe in. Abandoning his house and rather empty marriage, he sets off unprepared (yachting shoes! no cell phone!) to make his pilgrimage.
I really wanted to like this book. It sounded interesting, like a fictitious Walk in the Woods, which was a book I really enjoyed. Disappointed again. I am on a roll with disappointment. Unlike my previous disappointments, where I liked the book at the end despite its flaws, I felt very meh about this book. To start, let's talk about Harold. I know I have also lately been talking about how wrong it is to dislike a book because the character is not likable, but I think that in most cases, the characters are not supposed to be amicable (Gone Girl being a stellar example). I felt like Joyce wanted us to like Harold, to sympathize with him, and I did not. I think it is okay to dislike a book for making us try to feel a certain way about a character and failing.
Harold is a pushover, and he is written this way and the book knows it about him, but I do not feel sympathy for him. I am of the belief that we are supposed to like him because he is a bumbling old man who has a good heart and means well, but I was aggravated more often than I was empathetic. Maureen, Harold's wife, was not a nice character, but I got the feeling that we oughtn't like her. Joyce does a better job with her characterization, making her a shrew who is trapped in a life rut. She was far more interesting to read about because she was complex. Harold is annoyingly simple sometimes.
The plot also bothered me a little. Harold and Maureen have a son, and it becomes obvious fairly early on that there is supposed to be a plot twist that has to do with their son. When we get to this big reveal, it doesn't feel particularly shocking; the impact that the author has intended us to feel was, at least for me, taken away by the repeated hints that not everything was as it appeared. Perhaps it would have been more shocking without all of the "hey guess what there's a secret about Harold's son hey hey look guess what it's a secret".
Because Harold's journey is a pilgrimage, he experiences a lot of "revelations". This is problematic because the revelations are not particularly interesting; one that I remember specifically is that walking through the world makes one see it differently. Unsurprising and dull. He has a lot of flashbacks about his family on his walk and they would be more interesting if I had been able to invest myself in Harold, but I couldn't.
To sound like a "real" book critic, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a book that was too "British" for me to enjoy. I have a hard time understanding what people mean exactly when they say that, but I think it would apply nicely to this slim novel. With an interesting premise and a boring protagonist, Rachel Joyce's work left me feeling pretty neutral.
My rating: 3/5
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry on Goodreads
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