Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What’s the correct way to react to someone with a severe physical deformity? (Keep in mind that chances are they’re not unaware of their appearance.) How do you handle it should your child react, as children will tend to do, with either a piercingly audible query about ‘that funny looking person’, or worse, burst into tears? It was just such an encounter that prompted Palacio to write Wonder…and yes, she includes that in the book, albeit from the perspective of the person with the deformity. She spent the rest of the afternoon not only chagrined at her reaction and that of her children but also wondering “How should I explain this to my children? What is the correct response? …and what must it be like to be that person, always aware that people are whispering about you, staring (or NOT staring) at your disfiguration?”

The central character of Wonder, “Auggie” (August) Pullman, was born with a severe facial deformity, Treacher-Collins syndrome. Now ten, he’s undergone something like twenty-seven surgeries, and still has considerable facial deformation; he still has difficulties eating, and choking is a real hazard. He’s been homeschooled until now, though as he reaches the fifth grade (both in age and in academic achievement) he and his family are coming to realize that it may be time for him to enter a conventional school. Not only has his mother approached the point at which she can no longer teach him—she’s terrible at fractions—but he’s also begun to mature to the point of wanting relationships outside his own family.

The main story arc of the book takes place during Auggie’s fifth grade year at a private school, Beecher Prep. As most astute readers will have guessed by about the second chapter in, yes: despite a pre-school year intervention from the school’s principal assigning him a couple of informal guides as he settles into the school, Auggie has to deal with the stares, the revulsion, the “teasing” and the outright bullying that we’d all expect…and not just from the kids. At one point, the parents of the Mean Kid approach the principal with a request that Auggie be withdrawn from the school as they do not believe he’s up to the school’s standards1. At least the kids are up front about it; there’s a “game” among some of the students that they have thirty seconds to wash his ‘germs’ away if they touch something he’s touched. As the year wears on, the more open-minded kids do undergo a sea change; at first, it’s only a couple of kids who will voluntarily spend time with Auggie, but by the spring, others come to tease him in an affectionate way: at one point, he makes a joke about being the basis for “UglyDolls“, and the next day the girl to whom he was speaking gives him a keychain-sized one with a note “For the nicest AuggieDoll in the world!” This isn’t universal; the Mean Kid Julian didn’t have his own revelation about Auggie’s condition which made him a better person. That’s only reality, though. Not everyone is going to come out a better and more sympathetic person as a result of knowing someone like Auggie.

Palacio shifts between several of the kids’ viewpoints: Auggie gets the most stage time, but his older sister, her boyfriend, and a couple of the kids at school also get several of their own chapters. This might be a bit disjointed for some kids, but I think it works here; it’s nice to hear what the other characters think. As a kids’ book, I’m guessing it’s pretty much on the mark in terms of plotting, characterization and reading level. Reading it as an adult, I did pick up certain “after-school special movie of the week”, the kind in which everyone Learns a Lesson and the Mean Kids all become better people, but that’s not necessarily a complaint!

What to read next? Try Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, and its sequel, After Ever After. The medical issue is very different—leukemia rather than an intrinsic part of the child’s appearance—but both concentrate on the child’s reaction to the problem more than on the treatment of same.

1Treacher-Collins, at least in Auggie’s case, has no mental component. It’s purely a physical issue.


The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Quick: what did Lindbergh do? Fly solo and non-stop across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris, yes.

Anything else? Had a baby who was kidnapped, pro-German/anti-Semitic political leanings, involved with aviation…yes, also all true….if you’re thinking of Charles Lindbergh.

That’s what he did. What did she do?

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the titular “Aviator’s Wife”, was herself an aviatrix and author, in addition to the roles more conventional for the time of wife and mother and staunch supporter of her husband’s career and viewpoints while he was alive. She wrote and edited a number of books, including her husband’s autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, and her own, and Gift from the Sea, among others. The majority of her adult life, however, was spent as wife to (and in the shadow of) the renowned Charles Lindbergh; Anne not only remained behind with the children as they grew up, but publically supported her husband’s activities and political views1.

Charles and Anne both struggle with the publicity resulting from his trans-Atlantic flight; being in the public eye meant scrutiny of his opinions on proper breeding and isolationist stance during the lead-up and during World War Two. The 20-20 hindsight of intervening decades has largely discredited both, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Aviator’s Wife, being told from Anne’s perspective by a modern author, does suggest that Anne didn’t hold with her husband’s political beliefs but felt obligated, as a loyal wife, to support him in public.

As the children grow up, and Charles spends more and more time ‘traveling for work’, Anne herself struggles to reconcile her own desire for individuality with the societal expectation that she remain a helpmeet to her husband and mother to their children, even after the children have left home and the husband has proved himself not entirely the man she (and he) thought he was. In the end, neither attempt proves successful; though they remained married until Charles Lindbergh’s death in 1974, both Anne and Charles had affairs— she with the family doctor and he, perhaps not surprisingly, with a pair of Bavarian sisters and his East Prussian secretary, with whom he had a total of seven more children.

Overall, it’s well done.

Keep in mind, of course, that this is a novel, not a biography. As with Alice I Have Been and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, Benjamin’s picked another ‘sidebar’ woman about whom to write a fictional biography. This is like her first two books in that Benjamin also sticks quite close to the truth, at least insofar as external events go, she extrapolates quite a bit in regards her subject’s inner thoughts, hopes, dreams and monologues.

I suspect that this one may be a bit more uncomfortable for readers than Benjamin’s first two books, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s life was, for the most part, within living memory. Modern readers with more than a smattering of political awareness may come away wondering how spineless someone would have to be to continue supporting another’s clearly anti-Semitic opinions, despite their good Jewish friends. Modern women may come away mumbling about how spineless a woman would have to be to sit back and let their husband do all that. I’d argue that it’s still an interesting read; she was who she was, and if Benjamin inspires some readers to delve deeper into the lives of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, so much the better. Certainly, Benjamin doesn’t claim that her novel is anything other than fiction, though based firmly in fact…and both Charles and Anne were prolific diarists and autobiographists, not to mention being fairly well documented elsewhere in contemporaneous news sources and political files.

Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t a uniformly grim novel enumerating the protagonists’ failings! Benjamin does include the joy both took in flying, and flying in the ’20s and ’30s was adventurous to say the least. Her descriptions of taking wing in those early planes, noisy and mechanically cantankerous, are worth reading if only to give an idea of what exactly it was Charles Lindbergh did dare to do with his beloved Spirit of Saint Louis, not to mention the delight Anne must have taken in her own flights. Benjamin also slips in a fair bit of sense of the times and also retrospective humor: as an example, the book and the relationship begin in the ’20s with a ballroom dance, and end, more or less, with the festivities attendant on the launch of Apollo XI, during which Anne dances the Monkey with Buzz Aldrin and convinces Spiro Agnew to try the Twist with her.

For those inspired to look farther for non-fiction autobiographies, try Susan Hertog’s Annie Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life, Benjamin ends her novel with Morrow Lindbergh, now in her seventies and a widow, taking a solo flight in her own airplane from the 1930s—a not too terribly subtle way of expressing the subject’s own personal trajectory into personal independence and freedom…but Morrow Lindbergh did live for another twenty-five years or thereabouts, not covered in the novel. (She died in 2001, on her daughter Reeve’s farm.)

1In fairness, I’m not sure how much of that support came from Anne’s own belief in same or whether she felt, as many women her age did, that she had to become so completely part of her husband’s life.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

At the risk of sounding like a Jasper Fforde novel, this is a book in which Something Awful Happened in the Long Ago, and it’s this concealed mystery around which the plot revolves. Just as a warning: I’ve put spoilers down at the end, though not many and somewhat cryptic.

The introductory scene in the book gives some hints as to what this secret might be: Our Protagonist, Laurel, is sixteen in 1961, and the oldest of five siblings (Iris, Rose, Daphne and, breaking away from the floral/vegetative theme, a little brother Gerald). For the moment, she’s torn balancing her desire to tear away from her fuddy-duddy parents and time-consuming sisters with her love for that self-same family and the stability granted that her parents’ love for one another and the family’s love for one another. Laurel has hidden away in her ‘childhood treehouse during a game of hide-and-seek, the better to contemplate her own dreams of the future, when she sees a strange man approaching the house. Theirs is a fairly remote house—such things were easier fifty years ago in Englahd—so random strangers are a rarity. She regards him curiously…only to see her mother stab this man to death, using the familial Ceremonial Cake Knife…and there the central mystery ends until we reach the denouement of the novel.

The official “now” framing story is that of the family, now grown and gone their separate adult ways; though still close, the children don’t see each other more than once every few weeks or months, their father has passed away after fifty years and their mother is in an assisted living facility, in failing health herself. Laurel, now herself in her mid-sixties, has never thought to ask her mother about not only that strange man beyond what Dorothy and Stephen were willing to tell her at the time, but also simply more about their lives prior to meeting one another. How many children ever do? It is the reminder of her own mortality in the shape of her mother’s approaching death which prompts Laurel to delve deeper into her mother’s past. At first it is only a matter of assembling a “book of memories” to prompt her mother’s failing memory that inspires Laurel, but some odd responses—fear or surprise where there should only be pleasant reminiscence…and occasionally the reverse—prompt her to delve deeper.

Through a combination of vague suggestions from her mother, gradually sinking deeper into the gentle senility of extreme old age, and on Laurel’s own part a fair bit of organized historical research at The British Library and other lesser venues and a few interviews with survivors who knew her mother in the early ’40s, Laurel begins to piece things together. The intruder in 1961 was one Henry Jenkins, once a Famous Author, but now a near-vagrant having fallen to pieces after his wife’s death in one of the many bombings during the Blitz. But why has he come to Laurel’s mother, Dorothy, and perhaps more importantly, both to Laurel and to the readers, why did the seemingly mild-mannered homebody Dorothy Nicholson stab this stranger? The readers, being party to the “then” chapters, find all this out as Laurel uncovers the dusty past, of course; in the end, Laurel’s learned more than she ever really wanted to know about her mother’s past, though not the whole truth.

“In the Blitz” begins her mother’s story, or rather middles, as so many good novels about twentieth-century Britain do; Dorothy’s family has been killed in the bombings, leaving Dorothy, a girl in her late teens, on her own to support herself with very little experience or education. From thence continues a story of family secrets, personal secrets, spousal abuse, unreliable narrators, and double crossing, ending with a conveniently timed bomb, killing the girl who (‘fess up, you’ll agree with me!) the girl who deserves to die does die, and the girl who deserves love and life survives…but with a slight change in just who became whom.

Then-and-now stories’ inherent need to flip back and forth between the two portions of the novel may leave some readers a bit cold, for the very simple reason that authors are essentially trying to write two separate novels, combined into one. In the hands of a skilled author, such as Kate Morton, the interwoven plot(s) will at least…well…interweave plausibly, but I always end up with the uncomfortable feeling that I’ve just read three-quarters each of two different novels, bunged up together. In this case, I would have liked to learn more about the years intervening between the murder in 1961 and the mother’s death in 2011, more about the childhood of Dorothy and Vivien, and not to mention more about the peripheral characters such as the nanny Katy and the erstwhile beau Jimmy; what were their lives before and after intersecting with the Dolly/Vivien morass?

It doesn’t help that there’s a possible mental illness subplot that wasn’t terribly well developed; without that, Dolly’s reasons for blackmailing Vivien don’t seem quite so plausible, though had she lived, we might have found out as much about the true Dolly as we did about the woman masquerading in her place all those years.

As with many of my previous reviews, I feel there should be a disclaimer: I read this in less than 24 hours, and finished it willingly, enjoying it for the most part. Editors and librarians just like picking books apart to analyze them…This is definitely a book to read twice, the before-the-denouement and the after-the-denouement reads; as with Iain Pears’ The Instance of the Fingerpost, there are enough unreliable narrators and plot twists to make the book mean one thing before you know and one after. Though perhaps not so complexly.

The Major Plot Twist actually does make sense in the end: neither Vivien or Dolly had many people who knew them closely enough to care enough about where they’d gone to track them down in the event they vanished, especially during the turmoil of the Blitz. Staying out of the way of their acquaintances might be more of an issue, though “Mum” took care of that neatly enough by slipping off to the contentedly bucolic life on a smallholding, tied up in her family.

Reading on a Rainy Day
Fantasy Book Critic

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

As the subtitle “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy”1 suggests, this is a story about a summer vacation, and one that almost but not quite turns out very very wrong.

The Penderwick family’s usual summer plans—renting a cottage on Cape Cod for three weeks in August—fell through when the landlord sold the property at the last minute. Thankfully, Mr. Penderwick heard of another cottage in the Berkshires at the last minute through a friend of a friend and the six Penderwicks (four daughters and their widowed father and a lolloping Airedale called Hound) set out for Arundel. There are a few issues, such as the owner of the estate having forbidden dogs, and Mr. Penderwick’s inability to remember directions, but once they arrive, the summer gets off to a delightful start.

All they have to do is avoid Mrs. Tifton, the owner of the estate, and even more crucially, keep Hound out of her way. Guess what happens? Yep. Despite the snooty Mrs. Tifton’s best efforts, the girls and their dog invade the property in a particularly pervasive way, culminating with the inadvertent gatecrashing of the pinnacle of Mrs. Tifton’s summer, the annual garden party tour.

It’s hard to convey the charm of these books with a mere summary. They’re sweetly gentle books about loving families; there is some conflict and distress—parents who have set ideas about what their children ought to be and widowed fathers—but nothing truly evil or frightening. The oldest sister has her first crush. The youngest sister almost loses one of the titular rabbits. The Interesting Boy almost gets sent away to military academy when he’d much rather go to a boarding school in Boston next to a music school. But no one is ever really in danger. There’s no Incredible Climax to an Life-Changing Adventure. Each sister has her niche in the family, the responsible eldest, the budding author, the fleet soccer player and the butterfly. The father is an absent-minded botanist, who spouts Latin at his children. The dog…well, the dog is an Airedale.

Overall, I’d say that these are great for kids whose reading level has outstripped their maturity levels by three or four grade levels…or anyone who just likes gentle reads. If you liked this, try Elizabeth Enright’s books, both the Melendy quartet and books such as Gone-away Lake, or Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins, though those are all showing their age slightly. Noel Streatfeild’s “Shoes” series is another possibility, especially if you’re inclined to the theater arts. Another option might be Elizabeth Nesbit, and her ardent admirer, Edward Eager, both wrote books about families of siblings who played together much as the Penderwicks do, though those two authors do have a definite fantasy element; the kids therein all keep stumbling across magical items.

Is it entirely realistic? No. Reviewers on Goodreads dubious about the book who mentioned that several of the characters sound much older than they are. That said, I’ve thought that about a number of the YA books I’ve read recently.

1though I’d suggest that there are actually two interesting boys…

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Every weekend, Evelyn Couch and her husband go to visit his mother in the nursing home; Evelyn and Mrs. Couch dislike one another, so Evelyn is almost relieved one day when she falls into the clasp of an eager storyteller, lonely for an audience. Ninny Threadgoode, having outlived all those who knew her to visit her now, is glad to have someone to chat with, and the two women grow closer over the next few months. Ninny (short for Virginia) tells Evelyn stories of the town of Whistle Stop, Georgia, where she grew up with the Threadgoode family after they took her in1, and Evelyn brings in food for Ninny, at first only store-bought sweets but as the relationship and her own self-confidence strengthen, she moves on to home-made barbecue and at last the eponymous ‘fried green tomatoes’.

Ninny’s tales of “then” center on the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama, and the Threadgoode family which took her in when young and needing a home, and more specifically their wayward daughter, Idgie. Idgie was always tempestuous and wild, but after her beloved brother, Buddy, was killed by a train, she (forgive the pun) went completely off the rails. It wasn’t until the demurely lady-like church school teacher Ruth came to town for the summer that Idgie proved willing to return to a more domesticated life. Despite Idgie’s pleading, Ruth fled home to her home and fiance as she wanted only to be ‘normal’. In the end, the husband proves no better than an abuser, and upon Ruth’s mother’s death, Ruth herself determines to flee if her friends in Whistle Stop will help her…and they do.

I’ll stop here, just in case anyone hasn’t read the book yet; I will add that both the “then” and the “now” stories have bittersweet middles and ends…and add that the “now” endings in the book and the movie diverge considerably.

Having slept on it, I confess that I now rather appreciate the fact that Flagg never says, in as many words, that Idgie and Ruth are a lesbian couple, though the relationship is quite clear to anyone capable of reading between the lines. When I first read the book, I was more than slightly disappointed: Idgie is described merely as “an irrepressible tomboy”, and Ruth the demurely docile, obediently religious girl who flees this person so desperately and wholeheartedly in love with her because she cannot face the fact that she reciprocates that love. I’d guess that’s due to a couple of issues. Not least, I’d bet that when Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was written, it wasn’t quite so acceptable to come out (figuratively speaking) in mainstream literature. Secondly, I’d ask readers to consider the audience that I think Flagg was aiming at: the chick-lit readers. This is no edgy Rita Mae Brown novel or Florence King memoir; I doubt it was a cutting-edge sexual orientation novel at the time, and it’s less so now.

I don’t think that’s really the point of the book, however; I’d say rather that the novel is about love and acceptance, overcoming prejudice and recognizing one another as worthy of love. Idgie’s father gives her seed money to start a restaurant when Ruth returns and proves to be pregnant, so that she may help support her growing family. No recrimination. No analysis. No cross-examination. This is a comfort read (at least if you’re a white female of the late twentieth century.)

Not surprisingly, given the book’s setting, place and time, racial relations are a part of the book, though I’d suggest that this is more for the melanin-challenged potential readers than otherwise. The KKK makes an appearance, when Idgie attracts attention for feeding African-americans out the back door of the restaurant. (No mention that she also feeds the hoboes.)

The structure of the novel is a bit skittery, alternating between Evelyn’s ‘now’ and Ninny’s ‘then’ fairly evenly, but the ‘then’ components jump around a bit. Readers do need to keep an at least moderately sharp eye on the times of the past anecdotes, though Flagg has them fairly clearly labeled.

What to read next? If you didn’t care for the race issues in Flagg’s book, but did like the relationships between women, try The Color Purple. If you liked the general tone and setting of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but don’t want anything terribly avant-garde, try Cold Sassy Tree, as they were written and popular about the same time as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, and touch on some of the same themes. Just brace yourself if you’ve seen the movie versions of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe or The Color Purple; the books are considerably different from the movies (and vice versa, of course). The Lemon Jelly Cake might be another option; though the writing style’s changed a bit in the decades intervening between the books, the two strike me as similar.

1Ninny married one of the Threadgoode boys later; she was not formally adopted, just as Ruth was not

These Things Hidden, by Heather Gudenkauf

Warning: spoilers down below.

Allison, twenty-one, is being released early from prison; she was convicted of killing an infant girl (presumably hers) when she was sixteen, and has served only half of the ten year sentence when she is paroled for good behavior and self-improvement while in jail. Her lawyer collects her and takes her to the halfway house where she will spend six months to prove to the law that she can settle back into normal live, and readjust to life outside prison.

Not so easy. This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone and despite the privacy measures…of course everyone knows who did what to whom1. The other women living in the halfway house torment her2 by leaving dolls where Allison is bound to find them. Her sister refuses to speak to her. Her parents have erased her lingering presence in their house by clearing out all her possessions and photographs of her, and redecorating her room; her father gives her money but is obviously uncomfortable in her presence, and her mother refuses to see her at all.

Olena, the woman running the halfway house, has arranged for Allison to interview with the owner of one of the local bookstores; the state has a program to pay the wages (within reason) of recently released convicts to encourage business owners to take a chance. Things seem to be working out well…when Claire’s adopted son appears. He is five years old, and looks exactly like the boy Allison had sex with.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Allison has given birth to not one girl, but boy-girl twins. Her sister, Brynn, was home at the time of the birth and removed the girl, believing it to be already dead; it is she who put the baby into the river….which revived it. She has borne the guilt for this since that time. Moments after Brynn returns home, Allison give birth to the other twin, whom they take to the father’s house. Christopher, himself still quite young, vanishes that night, leaving Charm and her stepfather, Gus, with Christopher’s child. Realizing that they cannot take care of the little boy—Gus has just been diagnosed with lung cancer—Charm leaves the baby off at the nearest fire station, newly legal under the aegis of the Safe Haven laws.

With the inevitability of a Greek soap opera, the four women converge, physically and psychologically. The denouement comes following Gus’s funeral: clearing out her ex-husband’s house following his death, Charm’s mother finds the photograph of her daughter with the infant and concludes that Charm is the mother, and storms to Claire’s bookstore, where Allison and Brynn are just kneeling down to play with Joshua. Charm and her mother have a catfight, during which time Claire realizes who Allison is…and Brynn snaps finally, attempting to finish her guilty deed by submerging Joshua in the bathtub upstairs.

The story is told from the perspectives of Allison, Brynn, Charm and Claire; two are in first person and two in third person, but all present tense with a few flashbacks. It’s interesting to get the different viewpoints, though the shifting between the women may be a distraction for some readers.

Unfortunately, it was too obviously agenda-driven to be a very good book. The fact that I spotted several typos (a “naval” piercing, Bob “Villa” of This Old House) isn’t all that unusual—all too often, presses skimp on the last, and obvious to me, step of having a human read through the manuscript to pick up that sort of thing. I’ll also gloss over the central plot point—that Allison gave birth to twins without anyone noticing she was pregnant. She’s tall, long-waisted and athletic, the sort of body type which minimizes pregnancy, true. I’m not convinced that an athlete in high school would be able to both conceal the pregnancy and continue with her sports, especially given that one of those sports was swimming. Did no one notice anything in the locker rooms?

That said, kudos to Gudenkauf for promoting the Safe Haven programs; for those who don’t know, these allow people (presumably the parents) to anonymously leave infants less than two weeks old in certain specific locations—fire or police stations, hospitals, social services agencies and so on—without risk of prosecution for child abandonment or endangering a child. I would have preferred the Chekhov’s Gun to be introduced earlier in the book—we don’t find out that Allison had twins until halfway through the book, long after Joshua (the surviving twin) has been introduced.

1well, everyone except the woman who adopted Allison’s surviving child
2why doesn’t the women running the house do more to stop them?

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

(Warning: spoilers below.)

Harold Fry, recently retired, has been leading a life of thoroughly English1 humdrum unruffled calm; even as the book begins, however, there are signs of cracks in the facade. He and his wife Maureen do not speak, other than the few necessary phrases, such as “Pass the marmalade, please.” Indeed, she seems irritated by everything he does, sniping at seemingly minor mistakes, such as picking up the raspberry jam when he’d asked for the marmalade.

His life changes one morning when he receives a letter from Queenie, an old work acquaintance from twenty years ago, informing him that she’s in hospice, dying of cancer. She wants nothing of him, but just wanted to say goodbye and thank him for all he did for her. Harold pens a quick reply, and sets out to post it…

…only he just keeps walking after mailing the letter, having added a note to the effect of “Wait for me; I will come save you.” He does end up walking the six hundred miles from his home in Kingsbridge to Berwick-on-Tweed, with little more than the clothes he was wearing when he set out that morning. The long walk takes the physical toll one might expect of a sixty-five year old man with shoes inappropriate for more than a short stroll, and no camping gear or food, but along the way, complete strangers offer both physical and emotional support: tea and biscuits and a rest in a garden, water, bandages for his feet, their own tales of dealing with cancer.

Things take a turn for the popularized glurge when he comes to the attention of the national media, and hangers-on attach themselves to him; in the end, these people walking along with him split off and head for Berwick-on-Tweed without him, but Harold continues. As Maureen waits at home, she shifts from anger to frustration to worry, from indifference back to the passion they had at the beginning of their marriage, and in the end, comes to meet him in Berwick-on-Tweed to visit Queenie. As Harold walks, he reminisces about Queenie, his son David, and his wife. Queenie was a plain woman but a gifted accountant; Harold defends her against the barbs from the other men at the brewery which employs them, and he’s later assigned to drive her to the various pubs which purchase from the brewery, to check their books.

Joyce drops hints through the book that there’s a dark secret in the past; why else would Harold feel compelled to walk six hundred miles when he could drive or take public transit? It’s not until nearly the end of the book that readers find out what this is: David committed suicide, and it was Harold who found his son hanging in the garden shed. He went off the rails and began drinking heavily; one day in an alcoholic haze, he not only dismantled the garden shed but broke into his boss’s office to smash all the glass figurines of which said boss was inordinately proud. Queenie knew Harold had done it, but rather than say as much, she took the rap for him and was fired on the spot. The two did not communicate again until that last letter that precipitated Harold’s pilgrimage…and it is as close to a penitential pilgrimage as a modern non-religious person is likely to make these days. But Harold arrives too late to do more than hold Queenie’s hand for a few moments; the cancer surgeries have left her a physical wreck, only for the last tumor to distort her face into a gargoyle-like parody, and she is incapable of more than moaning wordlessly.

I would disagree with the reviewers who said this is an unsentimental book; it’s so permeated with sentiment that it oozed as I read it, but I am grateful for the fact that Joyce did NOT succumb to the ultimate in feel-good tropes and have Queenie survive. There’s nothing Harold could have done to save her, and indeed he comes too late to even tell Queenie what her act twenty years ago meant to him. Faith may be a comforting thing to have, but there’s a limit to what it can do. Harold and Maureen may have reconstructed the love they had at the beginning of their marriage, but Queenie and David are still gone.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is worth reading, to be sure. If you’re susceptible to emotional books, make sure you’ve got plenty of tissues. I fear I may be another of the heartless readers who were not as touched by this as others feel we ought to have been. Worth reading, definitely. Brilliant? Let me get back to you when Joyce has produced other books of similar caliber. I’ve read too many first novels from authors who never produced anything so good again to be wholeheartedly supportive of this. My apologies.

1not all British are like this, nor are all other nations condemned to riot and excitement; it’s just that Fry is doing it in a manner unique to the English.