Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Prayer for Owen Meany--John Irving

My first pass at A Prayer for Owen Meany was in June, 2007. I have friends who rave about John Irving, and all I'd read was The World According to Garp, which my best friend had loved but I'd hated. Loved the movie, though! Then again, I was 14 at the time. I gave Irving the benefit of the doubt and started Owen Meany with high hopes.

Here's what I wrote on LibraryThing at the end of that first pass:
I'm on page 196 of 641 and it's due back to the library. I'd like to love John Irving, but I don't. He makes me laugh out loud, which is a good reason to like an author. But in between bouts of laughter, I'm wondering where we're going and why I'm supposed to care. According to the flyleaf and all the foreshadowing, something extraordinary and terrifying is going to happen to Owen Meany. Until then, some of the segments drag on. Some of them, you think are finished and then 50 pages later you're revisiting that scene again. And then the library wants it back, so you return it, and maybe one day you'll check it out again and easily pick up right where you left off because, frankly, not much has happened.
As time went by and my stack of books to read grew, I was less and less inclined to give the book another pass. But then Care asked what to read, and Owen Meany was on her list. I commented that she should read it and tell me whether it was worth finishing. Instead, she started a mini book club, with scheduled discussion days and everything. I felt my arm being twisted, though with very little effort on her part, but all my library's copies were checked out. So, I went to the bookstore and picked it up. Literally, I picked it up off the shelf . . . paged through it to page 196. REMEMBERED HOW OWEN'S VOICE GRATES ON MY BRAIN BECAUSE HE SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS. And set it down again.

I got home and got on Twitter: Went to bkstore to buy #Owenmeany. Reread a few pages & couldn't do it. Trying the library.... and I'd forgotten how Owen grated on me. I can hear his voice all too well and it's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

But the library came through for me with a copy, and I steeled my nerves against Owen's screechy voice and dove in approximately where I'd left off.

And, it wasn't so bad.

I wasn't blown away by the Big Thing that Irving kept teasing the reader with in the first 196 pages, though I hadn't predicted the specifics. Owen's fatalistic outlook combined with the ANNOYING VOICE continued to grate on me throughout the book, to the point that I had a hard time seeing past that to view him as a hero/martyr. Which probably says more about me than it does about Irving.

But Johnny, the narrator, grew on me. His story grew on me, too (including the way Owen's actions and beliefs affected him), especially as snippets of his later life put the memories into a different context.

I probably won't seek out another book by Irving, but I was glad to have finished this one. Then again, there are an awful lot of great-looking books waiting to be read on my shelf. And my desk. And my other shelf. And my other other shelf. What do you think, did I waste my time? Have you ever made a second attempt at a book that didn't work for you the first time?
This post was inspired by Becky's Weekly Geeks assignment, and by Care, Softdrink, Jessi, and Lu.


  1. I really enjoyed "A Prayer for Owen Meany", but I see what you mean. You might like Simon Birch, the movie adapted from the book. It's the same general story (and odd voice quality) but with a much compressed time-line.

    I liked "Of Human Bondage" the first time I read it but didn't the second time. I've tried to read "Twilight" and "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" twice - but just can't get into them.

  2. I don't think I could have done it - good for you for sticking with it and finding it wasn't too bad. I think I would have given up in the bookstore when the memory of the annoying voice revived itself!

  3. I'm so glad we made it through the book! Thanks for working through it with me. I'm so proud of myself for finishing it - not that I didn't enjoy it, it was just so INVOLVED. One of those big-list books, glad to have read it so I can now say I read it. I don't think I will rush to read another Irving (but I do want to see some movies.)

  4. I think I liked it so much because of the way we all read it together. I also enjoyed The Cider House Rules, so if you ever get the urge to try Irving again you might give that one a whirl.

    This is really sad, but I can't remember putting down any books I didn't immediately get into. It's like they just disappear out of my head completely. I'm sure I've gone back and reread something I couldn't finish the first time, but nothing's coming to me right now.

    In other news, I have an award for you! :)

  5. I couldn't finish this one either. I liked 'Garp' and thought 'Hotel New Hampshire' was just OK. I wanted to read "Owen" for 2 reasons. I saw John Irving read from this book aloud in 2006, and I saw 'Simon Birch' which I loved. But I couldn't do it, I don't even think I made it to page 196. Too many other books I'd rather read, too bad though, Irving is a riot in person.

  6. This book divides people about right down the middle. I loved it. Maybe even more than Garp. I also enjoyed A Widow for One Year. But I couldn't stand The Fourth Hand. That's the last Irving book I read and it has put me off reading any others.

  7. I gave Irving a couple of chances (The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules) and finally decided I just don't really like his writing. I think that's ok, isn't it?

  8. I tried it once myself, and did not get very far- I think I read just sixty pages. It felt pointless, and his ALL CAPS VOICE was really annoying. Thanks for the review!

  9. Based on the comments, I think Rose City Reader is right--this one divides readers right down the middle! I'm glad I'm not the only one who had a hard time with it!

    Lahni, of course it's okay! No author can be loved by everyone.

    Busy91, That would be a big motivator for me, too. I'll have to remember to see him in person if I get the chance.

  10. Yeah, I don't think I'll be reading any more of his books, either. And I wouldn't have stuck it out with Owen if we all hadn't been reading it together.

  11. I read softdrink's review .. and I am sure I won't either read this guy's book :)

  12. I don't think you wasted your time- sometimes these things don't work out. It's always worth a shot to read anything, especiallya classic.

  13. I'm afraid I was influenced by softdrink's slams! (which I loved!) So I probably won't be seeking this one out.

  14. Well, Irving is probably one of my top five favorite naturally I fell into the category of "Loved it" for Prayer for Owen Meany. I also loved Hotel New Hampshire and most of his other books...although the last two I read of his work I was a tad disappointed (I have high hopes for the one coming out in October). Good for you for finishing a book you weren't sure about. I admit, I don't usually go back and try again if a book disappoints me.

  15. I'm on the "love" side of the great divide.