Doorstopper of the Month: The Cider House Rules by John Irving (A Reread)

Next month will be all about the short books (#NovNov!), but first it was time to get this excessively long one out of the way. My husband’s and my reading tastes don’t overlap in many areas, but John Irving is our mutual favorite author. I first started The Cider House Rules (1985) on our second honeymoon – being from two different countries, we had two nuptial ceremonies and two honeymoons, one per continent – which was a road trip through New England. We drove from Maryland to Maine and back; I have a specific memory of reading the chunky Irving hardback at our B&B in Stowe, Vermont. I was a much less prolific reader in those days, so I had to return my American library copy partially read and then pay to reserve one from the Hampshire Libraries system once we were back in the UK.

Thirteen years on, I remembered the orphanage and cider farm settings, the dynamic between Doctor Wilbur Larch and his protégé, Homer Wells, and Homer’s love for his best friend’s girl, Candy. I also remembered that this is a Trojan horse of a novel: it advocates, not very subtly, for abortion rights through pictures of women in desperate situations. Luckily, by the time I first read it I was no longer slavishly devoted to the American Religious Right. But this time I felt that even readers who consider themselves pro-choice might agree Irving over-eggs his argument. My memory of the 1999 film version is clearer. It severely condenses the book’s 40 years or so of action, cutting subplots and allowing Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron to play the leads all the way through. A shorter timeframe also more neatly draws a line between Rose Rose’s experience and Homer’s change of heart about offering abortions.

I had a strong preference for the scenes set at St. Cloud’s orphanage in Maine. Dr. Larch is celibate and addicted to ether – all a result of his first sexual encounter with a prostitute. He has an ironclad conviction that he is doing the Lord’s work for the pregnant women who get off the train at St. Cloud’s, whether they come for an abortion or to leave a live baby behind. Homer Wells is the one orphan who never finds an adoptive home; he stays on and becomes Larch’s trainee in obstetrics, but vows that he won’t perform abortions. As a young adult, Homer is pulled away from the orphanage by his puppy love for Wally and Candy, a couple-in-trouble who come up from his family’s apple farm. Homer thinks he’ll go back with his new friends for a month or two, but instead he stays at Ocean View orchard for decades, his relationship with Candy changing when Wally goes off to war and comes back disabled.

I had forgotten the bizarre scenario Larch has to set up for the orphanage’s board of trustees to accept his chosen successor, and the far-fetched family situation Homer, Candy and Wally end up in. The orchard sections could feel endless, so I always thrilled to mentions of what was happening for Dr. Larch and the nurses back at St. Cloud’s.

Oktoberfest reading and snacking.

The Dickensian influence – lots of minor characters and threads tying up nicely by the end; quirks of speech and behavior – has generally been the aspect I like the most about Irving’s work, and while I loved the explicit references to David Copperfield here (a few kids get their names from it, it’s read aloud to the boy orphans every night, and its opening question about whether the protagonist will be the hero of his own life or not applies to Homer, too), I did find the novel awfully baggy this time. I even put in a slip of paper where I felt that things started to drift: page 450.

One further note to make about the film: it, rather unforgivably, eliminates Melony, a larger-than-life character and necessary counterpart to the book’s multiple passive females. She’s the de facto head of the girl orphans, as Homer is for the boys, and initiates Homer into sex. But her feelings for him are more of hero worship than of romantic love, and when he breaks his promise and leaves St. Cloud’s without her, she sets off to hunt him down. Her odyssey, delivered in parallel, is nearly as important as Homer’s (see what I/Irving did there?).

While I loved the medical history material and Dr. Larch’s moral fiber, this time I found Homer a little insipid and annoying (he answers nearly every question with “Right”), and the plot somewhat slack and obvious. In my memory this is probably #3 out of the Irving novels I’ve read, below A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp – both of which I’d also like to reread to see if they’ve retained their power.

Page count: 731

My original rating (July–September 2007):

My rating now:

 

Done any rereading, or picked up any very long books, lately?

25 responses

  1. I remember enjoying all Irving’s early books up to and including A Prayer for Owen Meany. I stopped reading him after that – I don’t know why – too much wrestling perhaps! I have kept this one and Garp, but don’t know if I’d re-read them…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t like his earliest or latest stuff; I’m a solid mid-period fan. If you fancy rereading Garp sometime next year, let me know.

      Like

  2. I haven’t reread any of his work recently, but, from past memory, would agree with the order of your Top 3.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only read seven of his books, though it feels like more; there are some I’ve DNFed and some I’ve decided against reading based on the themes and/or general critical response. I think I’ve read all of what would be considered his major works.

      Like

  3. I LOVE Irving…. but reluctant to reread because his books absorbed me when I read them and I wonder if that’s worth preserving? There’s an Australian author I love (Sonya Hartnett) and I met her once and said that one of her books was the most heartbreaking thing I’d ever read and I was going to reread it. She grabbed my hand and said ‘Never go back…’ – since then, I haven’t reread much at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve done a lot of rereading this year and it’s been a mixed experience. A few books I’ve appreciated more than originally, some I’ve liked about the same, some haven’t quite lived up to my memory, and some I haven’t been able to finish a second time. I’m after books that last, meaning as much to me at different points of my life and not feeling dated.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reading Kate’s comment, I’d say Hartnett offered sage advice. I’m not sure this one would stand a reread for me. Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved is one of my exceptions to the Hartnett rule. Never one to miss the chance to plug that one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I try to wait at least 10 years before a reread so a plot isn’t fresh in my mind. (I don’t know how some people read the same book once a year!) Still, I’ve not hit on an ideal time gap or on the type of book that stands up to rereading.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That *is* a chunky one – longer than my current read of about c.600 pages, though as it’s non-fiction and Paul Morley, it might well take longer to read than fiction would! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The pages turn quickly in an Irving novel, but there was definitely a lag around the two-thirds point.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I haven’t read this in years – I agree that I didn’t find it as powerful as Owen Meaney (my favourite) or Garp though. I am very partial to The Hotel New Hampshire too but it’s been a long time since I’ve read any Irving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I liked that one, but it has a theme I find icky (I’m sure you know what I mean).

      Like

      1. Oh I do. And I may feel different if I reread it 😊

        Like

  7. He wrote Hotel New Hampshire before Cider House, and I liked that a whole lot (but Owen Meany is still my favorite). I read The Fourth Hand, A Widow for One Year, and Son of the Circus, which were all okay (of them, Widow was the best), but after that, I could not finish his books. Far too much waffle and I kept losing the story line so I gave up on him totally. (A case of the editor afraid to edit the “star”?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think my husband has read that middle trio you mention — he’s more of a diehard fan than I am — but they didn’t appeal to me. I also haven’t gotten on with Irving’s most recent couple of books. But I’ll still give his new one (coming in 2021?) a go.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I definitely need to read something by Irving! I’m not sure this is the one for me; I’m 100% pro choice but I hate preachy novels even when I agree with their message.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Garp would be an interesting one for you. It has some extreme feminist characters — I’ll have to see how that theme has aged.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The Dickens comparison is interesting – I wonder if that’s why I don’t like Irving’s books!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The baggy ones like this, anyway: loads of secondary characters and a few subplots. Early Irving was more concise but sort of weird and screwball; I DNFed his first novel.

      Like

  10. Owen Meaney, Garp and this one are my favorites by him. I do live in NH so I’m hardly unbiased but a good early Irving on a cold night is divine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Those would be my three favorites as well (though there are still plenty I’ve never tried). You’re right that he feels like a quintessential New England author.

      Like

  11. Those are the same three books by Irving I have read – Garp, Owen, and Cider House. And, like you, I’ve read Cider House twice! But I don’t remember why that is… I can hardly remember the other two, because it’s been so long. I’ve also heard people say their favourite is Hotel New Hampshire, so I’ve always meant to read that.

    Like

  12. Hotel New Hampshire and Garp, I read when I was far too young; I should probably have another look. Owen Meany was one of those books I got stuck in repeatedly over the years but I finally finished it a couple of years ago and I did really enjoy it (and went on a mini pilgrimage to see the Church referenced near the end which is a 20-minute walk away). If you’re a fan of that one, you might enjoy this reading, from when it was a WIP and Irving was appeared at the international festival of authors some years ago (there’s a transcript if you’d rather read than listen): https://writersoffthepage.ca/episodes/john-irving-a-prayer-for-owen-meany/transcript As for long books, I recently finished Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. I’ve still got some long ones in my stack, but I’ve been preoccupied with library duedates recently.

    Like

    1. (Nope, I’d missed one!) Garp I will stick on the rereading pile for next year. I remember that Owen Meany is one you’d tried to read for 20 years or something! I’d forgotten that the action moves to Canada.

      I’m unlikely to get through any more doorstoppers this year, but it would be fun to dig into some long books over the holidays and into January.

      Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: