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Senior Book Discussion: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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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.
- Ron Charles - Washington Post


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.
- Erica Wagner - The Times (UK)


When Harold Fry, a morbidly shy, retired British brewery salesman, decides on a whim to walk the distance between his home in southern England and the hospice where his long-lost friend, Queenie Hennessey, is dying of cancer, he has no idea that his act will change his life and inspire hundreds of people. The motivation behind the trek and why he is burdened by guilt and the need to atone, are gradually revealed in this initially captivating but finally pedestrian first novel by English writer Joyce. During Harold’s arduous trek, which covers 627 miles and 87 days, he uncoils the memory of his destructive rampage for which Queenie took the blame. He also acknowledges the unraveling of his marriage and his anguish about the lack of intimacy with his son. Plagued by doubt and exhaustion, he undergoes a dark night of the soul, but in the tradition of classical pilgrimages, he ultimately achieves spiritual affirmation. Joyce writes with precision about the changing landscape as Harold trudges his way across England. Early chapters of the book are beguiling, but a final revelation tests credulity, and the sentimental ending may be an overdose of what the Brits call “pudding.”
- Publishers Weekly

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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About the Author

Rachel Joyce is an award-winning writer of more than twenty plays for BBC Radio 4. She started writing after a twenty-year acting career, in which she performed leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and won multiple awards. Rachel Joyce lives in Gloucestershire on a farm with her family and is at work on her second novel.

Author Interview

Setting

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Howard Fry takes place in England.

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Discussion Questions

1. Talk about the obvious—why Harold Fry never returns from the mailbox. Is he experiencing a mid-life crisis, or spiritual crisis...or what? Has anything like that ever happened to you—a snap decision that turned out to be not just of-the-moment, but momentous as well?

2. What is the significance, thematically, of Harold's yacht shoes?

3. "Life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time." One of the themes in Unlikely Pilgrimage is how a seemingly ordinary life can take on extraordinary aspects. Do you consider your own life ordinary or extraordinary? In what way might we see our own lives or, say the lives of our neighbors, as remarkable?

4. How has Harold's past—his upbringing—shaped his adult life, especially his relationship with his wife and son?

5. Talk about the evolution of Harold Fry. What is his state of mind as he begins the journey, and how does he change during his long walk? What does he learn—about life and about himself?

6. Discuss the marital relationship, at the book's beginning, between Harold and Maureen. Maureen wants to believe that Harold's desertion has more to do with Queenie than with the state of the couple's marriage. Is she right...or not?

7. Why do couples continue in a relationship that no longer seems to fulfill a mutual need for either?

8. Describe Harold's relationship with his son, David.

9. What was Harold's relationship with Queenie...and in what way does he feel he betrayed her?

10. What does the waitress mean when she tells Harold that "if we don't go mad once in a while, there's no hope"? Have you ever felt like that?

11. What role does religious belief play in this novel?

12. What is Rachel Joyce satirizing as crowds begin to gather and Harold's journey becomes a cause celebre—with its t-shirts, Tweets, and Facebook posts? How do the people who join Harold in his trek see his journey—what are they looking for, or what do they expect from Harold? Why do the crowds eventually leave him behind?

13. What do Harold and Maureen come to understand about one another and marriage—and how does their marriage change? What do they come to realize about one another?

14. Why is Harold's journey called a "pilgrimage" in the title?

15. What is the relationship between the epigraph from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and this contemporary novel? Why does Rachel Joyce use Bunyan's book at both beginning and end?

16. Do you find the novel's end satisfying? Why or why not?

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