Friday, April 1, 2011

The Cider House Rules ~ John Irving

This morning, I finally finished the book that I blamed yesterday for my recent dearth of blog posts.  Though I've occasionally intended to read John Irving, I never actually got around to it until a review on The Blue Bookcase finally gave me the impetus to make it happen.  In response to my comment, Christina suggested that I choose A Prayer for Owen Meany or The World According to Garp as my first Irving novel, but I'm not going to lie: I fell in love with the cover of The Cider House Rules the second I saw it and I knew that I had to have it.  Yes, I do judge books by their covers.

In addition to beautiful cover art, The Cider House Rules (TCHR from here on out) has a nice heft to it, somewhat reminiscent of many a Victorian tome.  This is a substantial book, both in size and content, and has more than a passing resemblance to a Victorian novel.  Not only does Irving make repeated references to novels by Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, David Coppefield, and Little Dorrit) and Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), but he seems to model TCHR itself on Dickens' style (okay, I've only read A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, but it definitely reminded me of the latter).  TCHR flows in and out of the lives of many, many characters, some of whom occupy mere pages, others that are present from the first page to the last.  Irving even upholds the Victorian tendency to be vague on the exact timing of the novel, never letting you know the absolute year (i.e. 194_).

Though the form may be somewhat Victorian, the content is decidedly not.  While there's no real plot to speak of, the issues of abortion and non-traditional family arrangements pervaded the novel.  In terms of abortion, Irving presents a persuasive defense of not exactly the act itself, but of the choice (or lack thereof) to help people.  I won't get into too much detail here, but Irving is very level-headed in his presentation of this argument.  This is a really great read for anybody who is conflicted over this issue, if only because the novel's discussion of it is so calm.  The other aspect that I found so intriguing was the variety of family arrangements that I found: the life of an orphanage, families with non-biological children, families with just one or as many as three parents, homosexual partners, and incestuous relations are what immediately come to mind, but I'm sure there were even more combinations represented in TCHR.  What's really amazing is how many (thought not all) of these work.  I don't think there was a positive description of a single nuclear family, yet family is everywhere.

As for his writing, I think that Irving might be a turn-off for quite a lot of people, though he wasn't for me.  Remember that old maxim, "show, don't tell"?  Irving never heard it.  He is constantly telling us about his characters and while often this kind of thing bothers me, I thought that Irving made it work.  Just like with his non-traditional families, sometimes breaking the rules isn't such a bad thing.  Other potentially off-putting qualities are how very omniscient the narrator is (generally I prefer free indirect discourse, though the omniscience isn't as bothersome as I may often find it) and how long and rambling the novel is (rarely an issue for me).  Looking back at this list, I find a lot of similarities to what I saw in Anna Karenina, yet somehow Irving made it enjoyable for me whereas Tolstoy just irked me.

One issue I did have with TCHR was how Irving dealt with time.  As I mentioned before, he never gave exact dates, yet this often seemed rather silly due to the fact that he referenced fixed historical events, like Pearl Harbor.  Not surprisingly, this kind of ruined the effect.  He seemed to realize that and, as a result, made time even more shifty in other ways, like having a child who can barely speak and is small enough to easily be carried around by another small child in spring, be big and strong enough in the fall to carry another baby and a box up a hill, all while speaking as fluently as his lisp allows.  The effect of this was only to make me confused as to who was who and what happened when.  The time lines of the various story lines don't match up perfectly but I don't think they were so off kilter as to make this example actually make sense.

All in all though, this was a really wonderful novel, in terms of writing, story, and presentation of real issues.  It was definitely worth the impulse order from Amazon.  I can't wait to read more by Irving!

Have you read The Cider House Rules?  What did you think?


  1. Cider House is my second favorite John Irving novel, after A Prayer for Owen Meany. I actually didn't read it until after I saw the movie (usually I do that the other way 'round), but I read it on a beach on vacation a few years ago and was very happy I did.

  2. Great review. I'm so glad you liked it!
    I didn't mention it in my review, but I was a little annoyed by the way he played with time. Especially the 194_ thing with the dates. At first I was like, "okay, it's like a Dickens novel! That's cute!" But about a hundred pages in I was tired of it and really wanted to know how quickly time was passing without having to work to figure it out. I mean, I know it was intentional and everything, but I wasn't a fan.