I've not done very well with this plan at all, the only book I've managed to knock off my TBR pile by reading the audio version being Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This is mainly because I quickly came to realize that finding new and popular books at the library is much easier if you're willing to read the audiobook version. There's hardly any wait at all!
And so, rather than decreasing my TBR pile, I've read many books that were on my radar but not very high on my radar, and I've enjoyed almost all of them. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is no exception. It's one that several of my favorite bloggers have really enjoyed, and it appealed to me because I find myself really enjoying novels now with elderly people as the protagonists. Harold Fry is in his mid-sixties, newly retired, with a wife, Maureen, whom he hardly speaks to, living in a neighborhood he's rarely left. One day he gets a letter from a former colleague, Queenie, telling him that she is dying of cancer. Impulsively, Harold decides that he is going to go to Queenie, and that he will walk hundreds of miles to get there, in the hopes that his faith in her will keep her alive.
Often with stories like this, great bursts of faith and stubbornness, the protagonist is a child - think The Parent Trap and others of that nature. It's rare that you find an adult who is willing to bet everything on a leap of faith, and I loved Rachel Joyce for writing a story that shows idealism and belief and trust to an older audience.
This book is about so many things, shared with the reader in so many quiet, lovely ways. I loved the way Joyce alternated the narrators - first Harold, and then his wife, Maureen. It was wonderful to get to know each of them separately, and then see them together. Both characters came such a long way in the story and faced up to so many of their own mistakes and fears and griefs, but they did it in such a brave way. I can't quote from the book because I listened to it on audio, but Maureen says once that she never thought she'd be such a mess at 63, that she thought her life would be simple and steady. And that really hit me - I'm sure part of it is because I myself am getting older, but it's so much easier now for me to see the way people really are, to see that they, too, have regrets and sadnesses and disappointments in their lives, even if my interactions with them do not specifically deal with those issues. Joyce did an excellent job of bringing that to life.
I also really enjoyed the many other characters in this book. Maureen tentatively becomes friends with her neighbor, Rex, who becomes a wonderful source of support to her only after she reaches out to him - it makes you wonder, could your next-door neighbor be your new best friend if you'd only make the effort and take the risk of reaching out just a little bit further? And all the people that Harold met on his travels - I enjoyed all of these encounters because Joyce showed just how lonely and sad people can feel, and just how much difference a little kindness can make. The characters weren't perfect, but Joyce points out that all of them were on journeys of their own, struggling to overcome their own deficiencies and memories and hoping to come out on the other side better than they were before. And it is fitting that the bravest acts that Harold and Maureen did in this story was try once again to open up to each other.
This book isn't perfect - sometimes, I thought it was too long and that there was too much repetition. I particularly didn't like the part in which Harold was joined by a big group of pilgrims who kept using him for marketing and PR stunts. But, luckily, that was not a major part of the story, and the ending was so well-written, I was willing to forgive all of that. This was truly a lovely book about facing your fears and making connections.