Gentle books and I don't always get along. I don't like this about myself...that I apparently need excitement and twists and action. I don't have much time these days to sit, undisturbed, and concentrate on complex issues embedded within a smart literary novel. I'll put that activity on my list of things to do when my kids go to college!
But this title caught my eye. Fizzy Jill (after an unsatisfying adventure with the book "Wild") said that "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" was the book she wanted "Wild" to be. Ti called it a gem. It sounded gentle to me, but I was able to get it on audio from the library so I gave it a shot.
Synopsis: Harold Fry and his wife Maureen are both in their sixties, retired, growing old and growing apart. While Maureen stays busy scrubbing their little home, Harold is going a little crazy without anything to do, and has given up on there being anything but estrangement and bitterness between them. One day, Harold receives a letter from an old friend and work mate Queenie Hennessey, who he hasn't seen in years. Queenie notifies him that she is terminally ill, residing in a hospice some 600 miles away, and wants to express her thanks for his friendship and to say goodbye. Harold pens a note back to her, but instead of dropping his letter in the mailbox on the corner, he keeps walking. Without a cell phone, in his boat shoes, without food, Harold impulsively decides that if Queenie knows he is walking to see her, she will stay alive and he will save her.
Much of what is hidden in Harold's heart is laid bare throughout this journey. Not only is Harold forced to deal with the physical hardship of exertion and exhaustion, but in the solitude he must face his thoughts and life's memories. Is it selfish to drain his retirement fund to purchase food and housing along the way? He misses Maureen, but wonders if she cares if he is gone? He thinks about his son, who is no longer a part of their lives. Did he fail the son somewhere, thus causing the escalating behavior issues, the drug abuse, the wayward restlessness and depression? And then there is the untold story of Queenie that slowly unfurls in his mind over the miles.
Harold meets humanity from all walks of life on his journey. Businessmen, feminist bikers, drifters, immigrant physicians, teenage slackers. Some make a huge impression on him, some take advantage of him, some offer moral support or gifts. But he tucks them all into his heart and takes them with him on this grueling but life-affirming pilgrimage.
My thoughts: This book was a very pleasant surprise for me. I expected to be lulled into a state of fog by the gentleness and lack of action. Instead, what I got was something extremely emotional and gritty. There were even a few turns in the plot that shocked and devastated me.
Was it a downer? Because I know I'm talking like it was. Part of it was very visceral - it wrung me out. Regret at the end of a life is a heavy burden. Feeling like you have failed a child, who was once a pudgy baby but turns into an angry adult, is a heavy burden. Failing at a marriage is a heavy burden. But Harold learns his lessons along the way, learns about himself, and by the end, you have hope for this man. Ultimately I was uplifted.
And crazy as it seems with a book like this, I found it suspenseful! Like...will Harold make it? Will he give up? Why is Queenie so important to Harold? Will she live long enough to see Harold one more time? These are questions that propelled me through to the end.
Have you ever seen the movie "The Straight Story"? A precious movie, about an old man who is estranged from his brother. The old man cannot drive, so he hops on his John Deere lawn mower and heads across several states to make amends with his brother, who has taken ill, meeting mankind along the way. These two stories were so similar in my mind. If you liked this book, you should watch "The Straight Story".
A few words about the audio production: The narrator for this story was Jim Broadbent. I've not heard him before, but it tickled me to see that he narrates Winnie-the-Pooh stories. He has a charming, kind, British accent that is perfect for Pooh and for Harold. He was a pleasure to listen to.
Audiobook length: 9 hours and 57 minutes (336 pages)
4.5 out of 5 stars