Before I listened to this book I knew there were different views of it. KevinfromCanada found it sentimental and like sponge cake compared to his preferred fruitcake. Tony's Book World deems it a classic and compares it to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
Harold, recently retired from his job at the brewery to a life that revolves around mowing the lawn and coping with his unhappy wife, receives a note from an acquaintance he worked with 20 years before, the wonderfully named Queenie Hennessey. Queenie writes after all these years to let him know she is dying of cancer. Harold writes her a note and sets off to post it in a nearby mailbox. He found he has missed the pick-up and decides to walk to the next one. A conversation with a young woman working in a garage where he stops for food convinces him that he can keep Queenie alive by walking across England to visit her.
As he walks he recalls all his unpleasant memories, and the man has many of them beginning with his childhood. And he sometimes reviews them again. I understood this as an ugly duckling story, that is, Harold would grow on us as time went on, but as I read, I could see he had an awfully long way to go to blossom into a happier, more appealing human. We also heard about his wife Maureen's life as she reacted to Harold's pilgrimage; I found her transformation was more marked and successful.
Harold is touched by the many people he meets along the way, their kindnesses to him and their troubled stories. He becomes famous for his walk and is joined for a time by other pilgrims for Queenie; by contrast with them Harold does become more appealing. There was a late-in-the-book revelation that should have come earlier.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce, Random House, 2012, 336 pages (I listened to the audio version read by Jim Broadbent).