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The Essential John Irving

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • March 01, 2021

My life is a reading list.

John Irving was born in 1942 in Exeter, New Hampshire. His parents separated before he was born and Irving never met his biological father. An avid reader, he decided to be a writer early in life. In the late 1960s, he studied with Kurt Vonnegut at the renowned University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Some of his favorite books include The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, and The Mayor of Castorbridge by Thomas Hardy.

Many of Irving's stories are characterized by a set of common motifs, including wrestling, bears, eccentric characters, and vulnerable children. Frequently there is a writer protagonist. His characters dwell in a set of familiar places, including New Hampshire, Maine, Vienna, or Iowa. Though his career has spanned fifty years, the titles we are highlighting here—all adapted for the screen—were published over the course of twenty years, between 1978 and 1998.

Imagining something is better than remembering something.

The World According to Garp, Irving's fourth novel, traces the path of T. S. Garp. The boy is raised by single mother Jenny Fields, an independent woman who becomes a feminist icon. Like Irving himself, Garp never meets his biological father, wrestles in high school, and becomes a writer. But beyond that, the complex storyline takes on a life of its own, depicting a world rich with "lunacy and sorrow," as a character in the book says. The story is marked by Irving's buoyant sense of comedy, both ribald and robust. Published in 1978, the international bestseller was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It was adapted into a 1982 Oscar-nominated film starring Robin Williams as Garp and Glenn Close as his mother.

It is hard work and great art to make life not so serious.

Published in 1981, The Hotel New Hampshire is a coming-of-age novel depicting The Berrys, a quirky New Hampshire family composed of a married couple, Win and Mary, and their five children, Frank, Franny, John, Lilly, and Egg. "The first of my father's illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels." So says the story's narrator, John Berry, the third child in this eccentric family. Win and Mary, having met as teenagers working at a summer resort hotel in Maine, fall in love with each other, as well as the ephemeral lifestyle within a hotel. The 1984 adaptation starred Jodie Foster, Beau Bridges, and Rob Lowe.

What is hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the people who once mattered the most to us wind up in parentheses.

Irving's 1985 novel, The Cider House Rules, is described as a Bildungsroman, a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of a protagonist from youth to adulthood. The protagonist in this case is Homer who grows up in a Maine orphanage under the guidance of Dr. Wilbur Larch, an obstetrician. The WWII story focuses on themes of reproduction and abortion. A plot twist involving a character whose plane is shot down over Burma is based in part on details Irving had recently learned about the fate of his biological father. The novel has drawn comparisons to Dickens's Oliver Twist. The process of bringing the book to screen was protracted, taking over ten years. Irving wrote about the experience in his 1999 memoir My Movie Business. The Oscar-winning 1999 film starred Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo, and several other big names.

Never confuse faith, or belief—of any kind—with something even remotely intellectual.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, written in 1989, tells the story of John Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany growing up together in a small New Hampshire town in the 1950s and '60s. According to John's narration, Owen is a remarkable boy in many ways, believing himself to be God's instrument. The darkly comic novel pays homage to The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. Grass was a great influence for John Irving, as well as a close friend. The 1998 film adaptation of the book was retitled Simon Birch (at Irving's request) and it is marked by significant differences.

But who can distinguish between falling in love and imagining falling in love? Even genuinely falling in love is an act of the imagination.

Irving's tenth book, A Widow for One Year, was named a New York Times Notable Book when it came out in 1998. The story follows Ruth Cole through three pivotal episodes in her life. As a young child in 1958, she observes the marital strife of her unhappy parents. Then in the fall of 1990, she's an unmarried woman whose personal life isn't nearly as successful as her literary career. And finally in the autumn of 1995, Ruth is a forty-one-year-old widow and mother poised to fall in love for the first time. Both elegiac and erotic, it's a multilayered love story. The 2004 adaptation, titled The Door in the Floor stars Kim Basinger, Jeff Bridges, and a young Elle Fanning. The movie focuses only on the first section of Irving's story.

Irving's singular style is marked by dramatic, sudden deaths, sexual freedom, and broad situational comedy. A marvelous tension between tradition and nonconformity, reverence and rebellion, is threaded throughout his work. If you haven't had the chance to read any of his distinctive novels yet, we hope this has piqued your interest.

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