Boy, did this book make me feel like a curmudgeon. It's getting raved about all over the place; bloggers and print reviewers alike have been raving about it. The Washington Post's Ron Charles said, "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."
I guess it's not that I didn't like it, but I didn't love it. The story is simple enough; one morning retired Harold Fry gets a short letter from a long-ago acquaintance, saying that she's dying of cancer and thought he'd want to know. He lives in the south of England, she's in hospice in the north. He writes a short note in return and takes it out to post it, but as he walks to the postbox, he thinks of different things he should say. Eventually he's passed several postboxes and is out of his home village, and he realizes that he'd rather walk the 600 miles to where she is and talk with her than post a letter. So, without proper clothing or even a cell phone, he walks, to the consternation of his wife.
It's not that it's not a sweet story, or that it's too sweet a story. Every time the scale started to tip towards treacle, author Rachel Joyce tipped it back again, especially in scenes where Harold has gotten some publicity and begins to pick up some hangers-on, who vastly overrate the significance of the so-called pilgrimage. Or when he meets a gasbag who says his wife loves Jane Austen: "She's seen all the films"
My problems were these: first, the episodic nature of the chapters, easily signified by the chapters' titles: Harold and the Letter, Harold and the Hotel Guests, Harold and the Doctor. It's kind of like all those Friends episodes, which had titles beginning "The One With" or "The One Where".
Second, at times Joyce simply stated the obvious. When he chats with a man he would previously have cast judgment on, his own journey makes him feel more kindly. We see that in the interaction between the two men, but Joyce feels it necessary to comment: "He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others."
My third biggest peeve comes in that quote. He's walking to atone for the mistakes he had made. But two of the biggest factors in Harold Fry's history aren't revealed until nearly the end. I won't give spoilers, but when I got there, I felt gypped. I understand that the author was creating some mystery and tension in not telling us some very key information from Harold's earlier life, but since Harold and Maureen certainly knew about them, and they certainly had an impact on Harold's pilgrimage, I wish I'd known from the beginning. I felt like I'd been tricked, and the ending, instead of feeling catharctic, left me shrugging.
I'm disappointed. I'd heard so many good things about this, and there were parts I liked. I just wish the big secret had been disclosed up front, so we could really study how it affected Harold and his journey.