A Prayer for Owen Meany
By John Irving
Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc.
I have unbelievably mixed feelings about this book. It's on that list of "100 Books Everyone Should Read", so I picked it up and gave it a whirl.
Let me give you the quick synopsis first. Imagine a young boy who is not "normal". He is small....much smaller than all the other boys his age. He has a funny voice. He thinks differently than other children. Imagine this boy surprising his baseball coach by actually hitting a ball when he is at bat. Imagine that ball sliding foul near third base and striking his best friend's mother in the head, killing her instantly. Shocking? Indeed, but maybe not quite as shocking as many incidents that follow in this obviously allegorical novel about young Owen Meany who is marching bravely forward to meet his destiny.
The story follows young Owen Meany and his best friend, John Wheelwright (who narrates the story from a point much later in life), through Christmas pageants, private school escapades, a stuffed armadillo, television commentary, an amputated finger, work at a quarry, enlistment in the army and so much more. The book is laden with story after story after story about the events that happen in Owen Meany's life (so much so that there came a point during my reading that I was beginning to wonder what the point was of there being so many side stories and incidental occurrances that didn't seem to link in to the main theme at all).
So while we're at it, let me get my negative comments out of the way. Number one, the book took simply FOREVER to read. It seemed to go on and on and on (see my comment above). There were a few times I almost gave up (and anyone who knows me knows I finish a book once I start it....but this one was close to being one of those rare instances when I didn't!) Number two, the book itself was extremely anti-war, anti-government and anti-American (certain passages left me with a very sour taste in my mouth). And number three, in my opinion, there is about a third of the book that becomes terribly repetitive and, frankly, boring; flashbacks, flash forwards, visits to an island, obsessions with newspaper stories about war, comments on the nonsexuality of the narrator (by the narrator)--it was really just too much.
Now on to the positive. There were some extremely poignant moments in this story. After John's mother is killed by that errant baseball, he says "When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time--the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers." As someone who has lost my mother, I could completely relate to this comment.
As Owen Meany grows older, although not much bigger, he begins to express his belief that everything happens for a reason, that there are no accidents, and that he is an instrument in God's hands. He lives every moment of his life believing this. And the many incidents that happen to him during that life all inspire the reader to eventually believe the same thing.
There were some really neat things in this book. I really liked the author's use of capital letters for Owen Meany's voice. It emphasized the fact that his voice was "unusual" when you would read it as such: "WHY IS IT NECESSARY TO REFER TO ME AS 'LITTLE,' AS 'DIMINUTIVE,' AS MINIATURE'? says Owen Meany. Once Owen Meany is old enough to join the Army, that is exactly what he does because that is what he believes he is supposed to do. He makes a great statement, "THE ARMY OFFERS YOU THE ILLUSION OF CHOICE--THE SAME CHOICE AS EVERYONE ELSE."
I also really liked the development of the relationships between the characters. Even the minor characters were woven in and out of the story in such a way that you could truly believe this was a true friendship, a true family and a typical community.
I won't be a complete spoiler and tell you what happens at the end, but as is typical with most allegories, you don't really need a spoiler. You really only have to read the first few pages to know how this is going to end.....it just takes an awful long time getting there. Only in the very last few pages of the book is Owen Meany's destiny fully revealed.
And to be quite honest, up until about page 632, I was planning on rating this book 2 Bookmarks. I was frustrated that it had taken so dang long to finish, that there were so many little seemingly pointless side stories, and here I was, nine pages from the end and still no "big reveal"! And then it happened. It started on page 632 and was WHAM BAM, THANK YOU MA'AM (as my mother used to say) until the last line in the book: "O God--please give him back! I shall keep asking You!" So many of the seemingly pointless stories were tied together at the end, I felt a 4 Bookmark rating would have been appropriate, but I had to knock it down a little just due to the fact that I spent so much of the time during my read HATING it!
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