The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

By Rachel Joyce

(Random House, $25, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Making her debut as a novelist with this book is British actress and playwright Rachel Joyce, who performed leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and won multiple awards and went on to write more than 20 plays for for BBC Radio 4. She lives in Gloucestershire on a farm with her family.

What is this book about?

Harold Fry is growing old in his home in the English countryside, coping with a complaining wife and boring life. When out of the blue a letter arrives from a woman he knew years ago and is now on the verge of death at a hospice, Harold finds himself impulsively and literally propelled out of his unsatisfying life into a quest to walk the nearly 600 miles to the hospice to deliver his reply to Queenie, an improbable journey that he truly believes will keep her alive. Along the way he meets fascinating characters and unearths moving memories, and of course, also changes his life as he strives to keep Queenie in hers.

Here is what Joyce told Barnes & Noble about her book:

“This story began as a radio play that I wrote (in secret) for my father when I knew he was dying of cancer. I never told my dad I was doing this for him – and I think I knew he would never find out. But I suppose I wanted to write about a man keeping alive a person he cared for, at the point that I was losing someone I very much wanted to keep. I loved making my dad laugh too. He was an extremely witty man. I also wanted to write a story about the things I believe in – about the very simple and complicated business of being human, I suppose.

“I think there is a part in all of us that is looking for something bigger – maybe it is the nature of being human that we seek to make sense of things that don’t make sense at all. I also think that we all know what it means to lose people and things you want to keep. We know what remorse is and we also know how good it feels to connect. Essentially Harold sees himself as ordinary. I think that is true for most of us.”

Why you’ll like it:

While it is undoubtedly sentimental and whimsical in that oh-so-British way, this is an uplifting story that is grounded enough in the realities of growing older (and perhaps wiser) that will appeal to many readers. Here is a man making a grand gesture and plunging back into his past to understand why his present life is what it is. Harold may be over the hill, but he’s brave and determined. Don’t be surprised if his pilgrimage gets adapted for one of those odd little British films so many of us adore.

What others are saying:

“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,” says Paula McLain, author of “The Paris Wife.”

“Harold’s journey is ordinary and extraordinary; it is a journey through the self, through modern society, through time and landscape. 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.” Says Erica Wagner in The Times (UK).

 “Joyce, a former actress and acclaimed BBC scriptwriter here publishing her first novel, depicts Harold’s personal crisis and the extraordinary pilgrimage it generates in masterly fashion, exploring psychological complexities with compassion and insight. The result is a novel of deep beauty and wisdom about the human condition; Harold, a deeply sympathetic protagonist, has much to teach us. … A great novel; essential reading for fans of literary fiction,” says Patrick Sullivan of Manchester Community College, reviewing for Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says: “Those with the patience to accompany the protagonist on this meandering journey will receive an emotional payoff at the end. The debut novel by an award-winning British radio playwright (and actor) offers an allegory that requires many leaps of faith, while straddling the line between the charming and cloying (as well as the comic and melodramatic). …On his journey, [Harold] meets a bunch of characters, becomes something of a celebrity and learns a little bit more about the meaning of life. These lessons are articulated in homilies such as “you could be ordinary and attempt something extraordinary,” and “Maybe it’s what the world needs. A little less sense, and a little more faith.” Maybe, but if such sentiments seem akin to those from one of Mitch Albom’s bestselling parables, the novel’s evocation of everyday British reticence, heartbreak and wonder occasionally suggest the depths of the great Graham Swift. The final chapters of the novel resolve the mysteries that have been underlying the rest–how the son divided his parents, why the co-worker had disappeared from Harold’s life–and there’s a powerful resolution in which all’s well that ends well. Manipulative but moving, for readers who don’t mind having their strings pulled.”

“Rachel Joyce’s first novel…sounds twee, but it’s surprisingly steely, even inspiring, the kind of quirky book you want to shepherd into just the right hands. If your friends don’t like it, you may have to stop returning their calls for a little while until you can bring yourself to forgive them…[Joyce] has a lovely sense of the possibilities of redemption. In this bravely unpretentious and unsentimental tale, she’s cleared space where miracles are still possible,” says Ron Charles in The Washington Post.

When is it available?

Make your pilgrimage to get this book now to the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Goodwin branch.

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