Monday, June 30, 2014

Bookish Thoughts: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. ~ Opening of A Prayer for Owen Meany



A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Corgi Adult, 1989
Fiction; 635 pgs

From the Publisher: 
John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany is the inspiring modern classic that introduced two of the author’s most unforgettable characters, boys bonded forever in childhood: the stunted Owen Meany, whose life is touched by God, and the orphaned Johnny Wheelwright, whose life is touched by Owen. From the accident that links them to the mystery that follows them–and the martyrdom that parts them–the events of their lives form a tapestry of fate and faith in a novel that is Irving at his irresistible best.
I had a copy of this book sitting on my shelf for years.  It was one of those "must read" books.  It is considered a modern classic after all, and so many people I know love it.  As we prepared for our move three years ago, I nearly gave me copy away, deciding I was never going to read it.  It wasn't calling my name.  Then when Carrie chose it as one of her selections for her "I've Always Meant to Read That Book!" Challenge, I decided I might as well bite the bullet.  Especially after Trish from Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity  sang the book's praises.

Only, when I began reading the book, I was bored.  I did not particularly care for the characters nor was I enamored by Irving's story telling.  I considered giving the book up.  The only reason I stuck with it was because there were moments in the book I did enjoy.  And the more I read, the more I found to like. However, I also found more I did not like.  It was not until about two thirds into the book that it really took off for me.  While some of you who loved the book might find that cause for applause, I want to again point out it took me two thirds of the book to really get into it.  The book is lucky I finished it.  

What I did not like: Johnny as an adult.  Whether or not I agree with his politics and his thoughts on religious institutions isn't the point (although I did mostly agree).  I found the character's ramblings tiresome and annoying. I understand exactly what his friends and colleagues must have felt listening to his diatribes.  I didn't quite see the growth or insight in his character I had hoped to see.  He was in the same place at the beginning of the novel that he was at the end, or so it seemed to me. Obviously he wouldn't be where he is today if it weren't for his friend Owen Meany, but that's about all I walked away from in regards to John Wheelwright's character.

I wanted to like Owen, and, I suppose, on some level I did, but I never really connected with him the way I like to with a character I am rooting for.  He was wise for his age and didn't have a lot going for him, including an eccentric family who really did not take care of him.   At times I felt sorry for him, how little those around him understood him and how he was mistreated, and at other times I was annoyed with him and how rigid he could be.

What I did like: The author, John Irving, breathed life into the town of Gravesend and its people.  By the end of the book, I felt like a resident there myself.  I enjoyed spending time with Owen and Johnny as they grew up during the 1950's and 1960's. I found myself rooting for Owen as he strove to prove to others and to himself that his size was not going to stop him from reaching his goals.

I liked the friendship and strong bond between the two boys.  They were always there for each other, even despite their differences in opinions.  I wish I had had a friend like that growing up--or even now.

While I found the political commentary overdone throughout the novel, I appreciated seeing how the characters related to the times they were living in, including John F. Kennedy's election, his assassination and later the Vietnam War.  Irving was able to convey just how differently people reacted to such events.  

I could relate to Johnny's character more than Owen's when it came to the subject of faith.  I am the person who questions and doubts.  Even at the end of the novel, I did not feel moved to feel any differently.  I was touched by Owen's story to some extent.  Just not maybe in the way intended.

After finishing the book, I decided to re-watch Simon Birch (directed by Mark Steven Johnson), the movie loosely based on the book, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Emphasis on loosely.  John Irving did not believe a movie could capture the story he had written and so asked that the name Owen Meany be omitted.  And he was right.  The character Simon Birch (played by Ian Michael Smith) is much like the Owen Meany character and Joe Wenteworth (Joseph Mazello) is a somewhat convincing  Johnny Wheelwright.  While the bare bones are there, that of faith and fate, the movie is a mere skeleton of the first half of the book with an ending that is completely different.  You cannot watch the movie and say you know what the book is about.  

Like in the book, the two boys are best friends and a baseball, struck by Simon/Owen hits and kills Joe's/Johnny's mother.  Joe/Johnny is afraid he'll never know who his father is now.  In the movie, Joe must come to terms with his mother's death, including deciding who he wants to stay with, given his grandmother's declining health.  Simon's story runs parallel, as he wonders what fate has in store for him, knowing it will be something big.  While I enjoyed the movie, I felt the two story threads did not come together as seamlessly as they could have.  Nor did I feel the movie was as fleshed out as I would like it to have been.  It was a heartfelt movie, to be sure.  And it had its moments.  I remember liking the movie when I first saw it. Maybe having read the book, it's been spoiled for me.

As is pointed out in the first sentence of the novel, the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany is about much more than a baseball, a dead mother, the search for a father and wanting to be a hero.   It is the story about faith and doubt, yes.  But it is also a story about friendship and finding one's own path.  While I may have been disappointed in the novel overall, I can see why others have loved it.

Rating:   (Fair +)

You can learn more about John Irving and his books on the author's website

Source: I purchased both print and  e-book copies with my own hard earned money.



© 2014, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

28 comments:

  1. This is curious. I've never read this book, but we read a couple John Irvings in my book club (he is not for everyone that is for sure) and those who had read this book just got all misty-eyed and gooey over it. They said "best book ever" and "will never forget that book", blah blah blah. I figured after hearing all of that, I'd have to read it! I just find it curious that it was a tough read for you. So at least I don't have to feel so bad that I've ignored it for so long!

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    1. Sandy - I was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned in another post I was struggling with the book just how many people either couldn't finish it or didn't care for it either. I don't know if it was just a case of my expectations being too high because of all the love the book has gotten or what. I would like to read something else by Irving at some point. It just probably won't be soon.

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  2. I have never felt like reading this book either despite all the positive reviews in many other blogs. The themes in this book just don't call out to me, and like you I tend to question a lot. I guess this one is probably off my list for now unless I push myself to try it for once.

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    1. Athira - I should have listened to that feeling. I guess, in a way, I'm glad I read it. I don't regret it. I should know better though than to push myself to read a book I feel meh about.

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  3. I read this when Vance was in high school at his urging and loved it. I don't remember the political commentary so it must not have struck me. Maybe I need to reread it.

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    1. Kathy - You are definitely not alone. I am glad you loved it. It just didn't resonant with me for some reason.

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  4. I've always thought I "should" read it, but never have. This was a great review with both the positives and negatives. I always like to connect with the characters...so that is a consideration.

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    1. Jenclair - I wanted to like this one more and feel bad that I didn't. The book is one that is often referred to as a "modern classic" so it's no wonder we feel this is one we "should" read. I'm still glad I read it, even if I was disappointed in it.

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  5. I understand he is a well-respected and talented author and this is a beloved book, but I also did not finish it and no longer have the copy. I just felt...bored with the story, I guess..just my opinion, to those who loved it :) I did see Simon Birch and enjoyed the movie, so go figure. Thanks for a good and honest review!

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    1. Rita - I liked the movie when I first saw it too. I probably shouldn't have watched it again so soon after reading the book.

      It's nice to know I am not alone in not loving the book. I haven't tried anything else by Irving, but maybe at some point I will give his work another try.

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  6. Sorry this one didn't pan out so well for you. I definitely questioned the slow plot as I was reading, and while I expected not to like Owen--ALL THE CAPS--I ended up falling totally in love with his quirkiness and struggles. I started and stopped this one long before I ever picked it up and finished it, and in general I find Irving's writing has to strike me while I'm in just the right mood. Great review of this one, Wendy!

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    1. Andi - Thank you! The all caps was annoying initially, but I figured I wouldn't hold it against the author since I knew it was a stylistic choice. :-) And it fit with Owen's character. I really wanted to love this book. It just wasn't meant to be, I guess.

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  7. I no longer feel quite as guilty for putting of reading it for as long as I have! I'll get to it eventually but I won't feel awful if I don't connect to this one like so many people seem too. Great review! It's hard being honest on a book that everyone seems to adore.

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    1. Katherine - Hopefully when you read it, you will be among those who love it. :-)

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  8. Great review, Wendy!
    I thought I was the odd one out when I realized I was bored with the book. I didn't even finish the first third of it. And after that, I felt bad because I gave up on the book. I really was curious about the book though, since I'd read several raved reviews on it. I think I might pick it up again at some point.

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    1. Melody - You should never feel bad about giving up on a book. Some books just don't work for some of us even though they worked for other readers. If you do pick it up again, I hope you like it better than I did.

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  9. I didn't particularly care for the book, either. I think it was because of my own lack of faith and/or objection to organized religion. I did relate to some parts of it, but overall, it was not a book I loved. And I felt weird about it because I thought everyone else did. Glad to hear I'm not alone.

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    1. Lexi - It seems like there are a lot more of us who didn't than I realized. It's good to know we are both not alone, isn't it? Whew!

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  10. Greeting from another non fan of this book. After reading your awesome review I went back to see what I had written when I read it a few years ago. I don't usually include links, but our thoughts were similar in so many ways and I also rated it a 2.5!
    http://stacybuckeye.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/a-prayer-for-owen-meany-by-john-irving/

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    1. Stacy - Thanks for sharing the link to your review. It sounds like we both were on the same page with this one. :-)

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  11. I chose this one for my book club a few months ago and while reading it was very sensitive to how I thought others might be feeling about the book. It did take me about halfway to really get into it and I knew that the other girls in my club were likely very bored--especially with Johnny as an adult. Oh those sections were so tiresome! I'm sorry that you didn't love this one but you're certainly not the only one!! It's one that I recommend with reservations. :-/

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    1. Trish - There were definitely parts of the book I liked. I think I liked Johnny more when he was a child and Owen more when he was an adult. :-) This would have been a fun one to read with a book group, I think. There was a lot worth discussing in it, I think.

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  12. Oh, no - I'm sorry this wasn't a hit for you! I did love it, but I can see why the rambling style and political commentary might be a turn-off for some. Hopefully the next one you read along on will be better.

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    1. Carrie - I am glad you ended up loving it. This one just wasn't my cup of tea.

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  13. Sorry you didn't enjoy this one more. I watched Simon Birch years ago and thought it was okay. It sounds like the two are very different. I've had this one on my wish list for years but I'm in no rush to get to it.
    Thanks for the honest review!

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    1. Naida - Yes, the movie and book were very different. I hope you like A Prayer for Owen Meany if you do read it!

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  14. Thank you. I, too, have this book (and audiobook) - both of which have not called to me. I now have a sense of peace. I do not need to feel any angst about not getting to it. I don't want to waste my time reading over 1/2 a book before I get into it. Unfortunately that happens on occasion naturally.

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    1. Joy - It does happen sometimes. There have been quite a few books I started out not sure about and ended up loving by the end. This obviously was not one of them. Maybe had it been shorter, it would have been less disappointing (that it took me so long to get into it).

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