Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving


As a former bookseller I was aware of A Prayer for Owen Meany's block-buster bestseller status and know John Irving is a much-loved author due not only this novel, but to some of his others such as The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules (and their movie adaptations). Late last year I saw A Prayer for Owen Meany on a list of inspirational novels. I wanted to read something inspirational, so I put it on my TBR shortlist. There's also a psychological reward for me in reading a chunckster at the beginning of the year and this tome weighs in at 627 pages.

I enjoyed the novel and have a feeling it's one that I'll grow fonder of over time, especially as I talk with others about it. The novel opens in the summer of 1953 and ends in the late 1980s. It's a family saga, a coming of age story, a window into the world of an exclusive private prep school,  a sociological study of how one group of draft-aged people dealt with Vietnam, how TV changed not only daily life but the world, American politics, and a slew of other things. One of my favorite characters is Hester--her treatment by her two older brothers and parents while growing up makes the rise of the feminist movement in the 60s & 70s seem not only logical but oh-so-desperately necessary.


Upon finishing the novel, however, I was left with the unsettling feeling of having been manipulated in a rather heavy-handed way. I know exactly when that feeling started. For those of you who haven't read it this is a potential spoiler: it was the scene where one of the characters throws something through a window to reestablish another character's faith. I didn't believe anything about that scene. Not what the characters did, not how they reacted, nothing. After that scene, which is toward the end of the book, the story became a little too tidy for me, yet at the same time there is some of the best tension and suspense that I've read in a long time. It was exciting to be both critical and sucked in at the same time. I admire Irving's skill at weaving together the various storylines throughout the entire 600+ pages and how he tidied up (most) things at the end.

A Prayer for Owen Meany is my first read for the Reading New England Challenge. The novel is set primarily in New Hampshire with some scenes in Vermont as well as Boston and Arizona. John Irving is a  New Hampshire native who now lives in Toronto, Canada. New Hampshire and the time period is captured in both general and specific ways. Here's a specific:
Overall, I'm glad to have read this book and plan on holding on to my copy for a potential re-read some years from now. I'm a beginning writer of fiction and the way Irving takes his time developing characters was instructional. My first drafts tend to be on the thin side and many writing coaches advise to write fat, edit thin. I'm not comparing my first drafts to the finished product of a master novelist, but reading this novel has encouraged me write a bit fatter.

A final word
I've been pondering this novel for several days now and was hung up on the idea of it being labeled an "Inspirational novel." That strong feeling of having been manipulated made me feel anything but inspired. As I've been flipping through it and re-reading passages that I tagged, I find myself hooked on these words from Owen Meany:
IF YOU'RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.
These words by themselves might be inspiring, but within the context of this novel they are truly inspiring to me. OMG, and I just got the name Owen Meany . . .  Own Meaning, perhaps?

If you've read A Prayer for Owen Meany did you find it inspirational? All novels attempt to manipulate our feelings, but did you feel overly manipulated, too? What novels have been inspirational for you?

5 comments:

  1. I agree that I wouldn't necessarily characterize this as an 'inspirational novel' at least not in the 'faith' sense... but it is one of my all time favorites. I love the characters and it's one of my go-to books to read just random portions when I don't feel like reading anything else.

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  2. One of my (and my wife's) all-time favorite books. If we felt manipulated, I think we liked it. :) My wife said, though, she didn't have any issues with it. What I really remember is how Irving addressed faith, but in a realistic way - with all the doubts.

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  3. That's definitely an inspiring quote! I usually turn to nonfiction for inspiration -- recently, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Very helpful for my writing dreams.

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  4. I enjoyed this book and was really glad I read it (my first John Irving), but I somehow couldn't settle in and really trust it. Maybe it was that like you I felt manipulated by the author, and needed to keep my skeptical distance. I know what you mean about the window scene; I wished that could have played out differently. And to me the book did not even come close to what I feel that faith is about. But it certainly created some memorable scenes and characters! Owen is quite something.
    I have actually been much more inspired by the author that Irving invokes several times in this novel as his main character is studying and teaching him: Robertson Davies. To me his storytelling flows more naturally and his exploration of faith and religion has more depth and substance. I never tire of recommending him!

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  5. I found it inspiring for reasons that most people wouldn't--and in a very personal way. But I am with you, if I knew it was supposed to have been inspiring, I would have been hard pressed to find it so.

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