Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: The Cider House Rules, by John Irving

Reviewed by Christina

Published: 1985

It's about: This is the life story of Homer Wells. He was born and raised in an orphanage in the remote town of St. Cloud's, Maine. The orphanage is attached to a hospital where Homer's father figure, Dr. Wilbur Larch, performs deliveries and early-term abortions. Homer proves to be unadoptable, and so as he grows older he becomes Dr. Larch's assistant; Larch hopes Homer will be his successor one day. But Homer decides he doesn't want to be a doctor, and he firmly refuses to perform abortions. As a young man, he befriends a young couple and leaves St. Cloud's to work at an apple orchard with them in another part of Maine.

...Hm. I'm having trouble knowing where to stop with this synopsis. So much happens in this book, and I don't want to give it all away. I guess I'll just say that Homer has an eventful life, and he's continuously surrounded with various and sundry supporting characters.

I thought: If you've read anything else by John Irving, you can guess what this book is going to be like. It's probably going to be a well-researched tall tale that takes place in New England, spans decades, and features eccentric, dynamic characters who have weird names. Throw in some adultery, drowning, a bear or two, a boarding school (an orphanage in this case) and a war, and bada-bing! You've got a John Irving novel.

But see, the thing is, I LOVE his books. I like watching for those recurring plot elements. His characters are so fascinating, and in The Cider House Rules we get to learn the backstories and in-depth motivations of not just Homer Wells, but many other supporting characters as well. I also really enjoy books where the setting is important, and that's definitely the case here. We never forget we're in Maine. And what impressed me most about this book (even more than his others that I've read) is how much research he must have done. There is a TON of information packed into this novel, especially about apple farming, Burma in WWII, obstetrics/women's health/general medicine. Mr. Irving includes notes (in the back of the book) telling where he got a lot of the information and anecdotes.

But the best thing here is the story. John Irving is nothing if not an incredibly imaginative storyteller. The Cider House Rules is a rather long book, and it's full of details and flashbacks. But the writing is clear and unflowery- I found it a fairly quick-paced and yet rewarding read. That said, it's not easy. While I would never call this a protest novel, there is a delicate emotional issue at work here: Abortion. I think it's safe to say that this subject matter is difficult for most people to read (or even think about).

Verdict: It's not my absolute favorite of John Irving's books, but still Stick it on the shelf!

Warnings: There's a bit of language and some strong sexual content, including repeated descriptions of a particularly bizarre pornographic picture. (Thanks so much for that enduring mental image, Mr. Irving.)
There are also graphic medical descriptions that might be disturbing for some readers, including an autopsy of a fetus. Don't say I didn't warn you.

A Note About the Film Adaptation: John Irving himself adapted this book for the big screen, and it won an academy award for Best Adapted Screenplay. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw that it was rated PG-13 and (at my library) shelved in the Young Adult DVD section. So I watched it the same day I finished the book, and it's substantially abridged. Many important characters and events are left out of the movie. It's really very, very different. I guess it's a nice enough movie, but pale and thin compared to the gritty, dark, and expansive novel.

Favorite excerpts
"What is hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the people who once mattered the most to us are wrapped up in parentheses."

"'When you lie, it makes you feel in charge of your life. Telling lies is very seductive to orphans. I know,' Dr. Larch wrote, 'I know because I tell them, too. I love to lie. When you lie, you feel as if you have cheated fate- your own, and everybody else's.'"
[Lying is an important theme in this book, especially lying within interpersonal relationships and in personal and collective histories. I especially enjoyed this theme, since Lying is one of my favorite topics these days.]

What I'm reading next: A Doll's House, by Henrik Ibsen, for A Year of Feminist Classics