by John Irving
An expatriate living in Toronto, John Wheelwright is inspired by current events in Reagan's America to reminisce about his childhood friend Owen and growing up in Gravesend, in New England. The two boys were best friends, despite their vastly different backgrounds: Owen's father owns a rock quarry and rather poor, while John's family is wealthy and the Wheelwright name is one of the most respected in town. But Owen was extraordinary, and it was due to him that John was able to embrace faith and call himself a Christian. As he recalls the miracles he witnessed through Owen, John reveals a deep and powerful friendship – the loss of which damaged him so deeply that decades later, he still lives in the past, unable to move past the events of his youth.
I first read Owen Meany back in 2006 and I really enjoyed it. I wrote the following notes about the novel over on BookCrossing:
I really enjoyed reading John's story about growing up with Owen Meany, but every time he transitioned from the past to the present, from adventures in Gravesend to his diary in Toronto, I got lost. Well, not lost - it is more like, I got interrupted. Distracted. The story's spell was snapped.
But wow. What a story. What an engrossing, confusing character Owen Meany is. His devotion to the Wheelwright family was touching, but also sad; it seemed he abandoned his own family to surround himself in a new one. Given Owen's beliefs about himself and his family, there is little surprise that he was so deeply religious, but his distaste for his family seemed out of place to the rest of his character. His spiritual devotion is something I admire in him, and so he becomes inspirational, because to have faith that strong is something I ought to strive for with greater dedication.
Owen's certainty and sense of purpose are an excellent contrast to the narrator John, who lacks both. John's just as memorable as Owen, because he is just so normal that anyone can recognize an aspect of him within themselves.
The plot twists and turns, with little mysteries that pop up again and again; all is resolved by the end of the book, but not often as you would expect. Great book.
I enjoyed this second reading even more than the first one. Six years between readings is enough time that I couldn't remember the plot save in broad strokes. However, since I knew the framework of the story, and where it was going, I could spend much more of my time savoring the details and the recurring symbols that appear.
For example, John's mother Tabitha Wheelwright had a red dress that she almost never wore, even though she looked beautiful in it. I couldn't help but connect the color to The Scarlet Letter; when she wore that dress that John's mother became marked out as a sensual creature, and a side of her that otherwise remained hidden was able to emerge. But then another part of me would wonder if perhaps the dress was just another dress in Tabitha's wardrobe, and the only reason it is being treated as such a significant object is because her son, now a middle-aged English teacher, has a demonstrated fondness for uncovering symbolism in stories and, by extension, his memories.
Armlessness is another idea that appears again and again in the story. I'm not sure I fully recognized it when I last read the book, but it really stood out this time. It goes all the way back to the origin of the town of Gravesend, when a Native American named Watahantowet sold the land on which the town was built to the original Wheelwright. After Owen accidentally kills John's mother with a foul baseball, he removes the claws from a stuffed armadillo that the two boys share to express his remorse; later he explains to John that he was also trying to demonstrate that he did not control the ball, but he was merely God's instrument. He removes the arms from a statue of Mary Magdalene at a local parochial school, effectively robbing her of any Godly intervention – and reflecting Owen's rather negative view of Catholics.
This helpless state also reflects the adult John Wheelwright, who frequently works himself into a rage over Iran-Contra scandal and the American government's reaction. He interrupts his stories about Gravesend with diatribes against the Reagan administration, frustrated by his inability to affect events. As the book goes on, he increasingly makes parallels between the Vietnam War and the current crisis, revealing over time that he badly traumatized by the war (although we learn early on that he didn't serve in the military at the time) and suffers from something like PTSD that prevents him from putting those events fully into the past.
From my rambling, you can probably gather that I really like this novel. It's pretty hefty – the paperback version released earlier this year is over six hundred pages – but John Irving's a great storyteller. A reader on BookCrossing described the book as “dense and delicious as a rich chocolate torte and I can only eat one bite at a time” - and I think that's a pretty good description. It's not the easiest novel, and there's a lot to take in, but it's an excellent book.
5 out of 5 stars
To read more about A Prayer for Owen Meany, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
2010: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
2009: The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery
2008: News & Discussion Question: Rare Books For Sale