Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn't heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say
goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie--who is 600 miles away--because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die. So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories--flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband. Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband's sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?
1. Harold’s journey is both physical and metaphorical. He is not the only character in the novel to go on a journey and Rachel Joyce has said that writing the book was in itself a journey. What other literary journeys does this novel call to mind?
2. Harold says he is not a religious man but his journey is called a pilgrimage and it is undoubtedly a leap of faith. How much and how consciously do you feel RJ draws on Christian tenets and/or other belief systems in the novel.
3. Harold is a man with many flaws. Despite, or perhaps because of this, do you see him as an archetypal Englishman? Or is he an Everyman?
4. When we first meet Harold and Maureen, while they share breakfast they seem in different worlds. To what extent did you see Maureen as the cause of Harold’s departure?
5. The mental health of several characters is called into question in the novel. Depression, Alzheimers, addiction are all diseases that touch many of us and yet mental illness remains to a great extent taboo in our society. How is RJ using this? Do you find it effective?
6. Harold and Maureen are married but both are lonely. The couple Harold meets at Buckfast Abbey travel together but have also lost sight of what holds them together. What makes a marriage happy? How much is romantic happiness about being a pair and how much about other people and interests?
7. At the start of the book both Harold and Maureen have allowed friends to fall by the wayside. This story is all about how we all connect with one another. What makes someone a true friend and how does RJ represent friendship?
8. Regret is an emotion that plays a key part in the novel. Do you think RJ sees it as a positive or negative force?
9. Is Harold’s relationship with David the inevitable result of Harold’s own upbringing?
10. Rachel Joyce writes beautifully about the English countryside – but how crucial to the telling of her story is the actual landscape she describes? How would it change the novel if it was set in Scotland, perhaps, or France, or..?
11. The sea provides bookends for the novel and plays a vivid part in Harold’s memories. Is this significant?
12. How does RJ use food, and the sharing of food in the novel?
13. How much are Harold’s responses to his fellow pilgrims dictated by his past?
14. Was the ending of the novel a shock or the inevitable conclusion?
15. Who saves who in this novel?
16. Has The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry inspired you to do something out of the ordinary – take a journey? Renew contact with someone? Look at strangers with a new perspective? Do share your response with us at www.facebook.com/unlikelypilgrimageofharoldfry