This book is: charming.
Other elements: walking, befriending strangers, what’s really important in life, marriage, growing old, mortality.
Read it: if you’d enjoy witnessing the adventures of an aging, mild-mannered Englishman.
Overall rating: 8.25/10
One morning, recent retiree Harold Fry is eating a mundane breakfast with his wife, who has become a stranger who sleeps in the spare room, when he gets a letter from an old friend. The letter comes from a hospice; his friend is dying of cancer and she sent the note to say goodbye.
Harold writes a note in reply and sets off to the mailbox to send it. He reaches the mailbox and decides to go past it. As he walks, he starts to feel a strong desire to do something out of the ordinary. After walking much further than usual, a conversation with a stranger sparks an idea: he will walk across the country to see his friend. If he walks all the way there, he tells himself, there’s no way she’ll die. He sends a message to his friend to let her know he’s coming and he sets off, with nothing but the clothes he wore out of the house that morning.
“On he went, one foot in front of the other. Now that he had accepted the slowness of himself, he took pleasure in the distance he covered.” – Page 42
Harold’s way of looking at the world he passes is marvelous. He has his ups and downs, like anyone on a journey, but the peaceful moments of observation as he walks are some of my favorite parts.
“He trod paving stones again, and was struck by both their smallness and by their regularity.” – Page 52
Harold begins to encounter strangers. He never really seeks people out, but he’s polite and harmless and people begin to take an interest in what he’s doing. He’s helped by strangers along his way, people who hear about what he’s trying to do and are moved to tell him their own secrets in return for Harold sharing his hopes.
“[Harold] had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so fro a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.
He walked so surely it was as if all his life he had been waiting to get up from his chair.” – Page 158
As Harold walks, discovering the lives of strangers, he also thinks about his own life – specifically his family. By the end of the walk, Harold has gained a new perspective on his own life as well as the lives of the strangers he meets.
I really enjoyed reading this book and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone. However, there was one plot element of this book that I did not like. I thought it was unnecessary and distracting. I am putting it below a jump because it’s a spoiler. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop now!
Near the beginning of the novel, when Harold first starts walking, his wife tells a doctor that’s she’s concerned that Harold has the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. She says that his father had it and that Harold had begun showing some signs before now.
Because Harold seemed totally with it for most of the book, I assumed for a long time that this was a fear of the wife’s or a ploy to get police assistance in retrieving Harold rather than a legitimate concern. But as the book goes on, the reader learns that Harold’s father really did have Alzheimer’s and near the end of the book, we’re forced to wonder if Harold does too. Near the end of his walk – exhausted, dejected, demoralized and hopeless – Harold starts to forget things. Things he would never normally forget, like his son’s name.
It’s unclear from context whether this forgetting comes from Harold’s mental and physical exhaustion or from the beginnings of mental decline. I’m just not sure why the author chose to weave this element into the story. Harold and his wife were already conscious of their own mortality and frailty, thanks to Harold’s walk and the undeniable reality of Harold’s friend’s impending death; whose dire physical state had already prompted horror and introspection. I found that the sudden introduction of reason to doubt Harold’s mind takes away from the meaning of his walk rather than adds to it.
Perhaps the element of Alzheimer’s has special meaning to the author and she was determined to include it, regardless of plot necessity. Either way: I thought it was a distracting and unnecessary element. But it’s certainly not enough to ruin the book – I still highly recommend it.