CFN – I came across my first John Irving novel by accident. Ashamedly, I have a tendency to judge a book by its cover (in the most literal sense), and when I first laid eyes on Irving’s ‘A Widow for One Year’, strewn haphazardly on the shelf at the thrift store, there was something about the font and the bent corners of this not-so-gently loved book that caught my attention. Luckily, my instincts (however shallow) did not lead me astray; ‘A Widow for One Year’ proved to be a very enjoyable read.
After I devoured the novel after a couple of sittings, I knew that I had to read more of Irving’s work; thus bringing me to what has now become one of my favourite novels to date: John Irving’s ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’.
‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ is a richly textured, intricate novel which follows the lives of Johnny Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany, two young boys growing up in the provincial town of Gravesend, New Hampshire in the mid 1950’s. Owen, a faith-driven child, suffers from an unspecified genetic disorder; as a result, Owen is extremely small in stature (as an adult, his height does not exceed five feet) and due to a malformed larynx, has a shrill, child-like voice. However, Owen does not feel alienated by his notable differences; rather, he believes that he is “God’s Instrument”, and that these unique features have been bestowed upon him in order to fulfill a pre-destined purpose.
It should. ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ was the inspiration for the full-length film ‘Simon Birch’ (directed by Mark Steven Johnson in 1998). While there are a few similarities between the novel and the film (anyone remember the creepy armadillo?) I can guarantee you that the similarities are few and far between. For instance, the sheer breadth of time the novel covers (from 1950 to 1987) is considerably more expansive than the time span covered in ‘Simon Birch’. ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ not only details the trials and tribulations of Johnny and Owens’ childhood, but it also delves into their time as students at Gravesend Academy, and Owens’ fateful foray into the Armed Forces as an adult.
Of course, as with any novel-to-film adaptation, it is my opinion that the novel is inevitably more detailed than the movie; ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ is no exception. Irving pays impeccable attention to detail, and as with some of his previous work, he often alludes to his preferred writing style by weaving in some in-character commentary (it has been said that Irving is very “Dickensian,” an author that John Wheelwright refers to as a teacher in Bishop Strachan School, in Toronto, Ontario).
My only criticism of ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ is that in order to fully appreciate certain aspects of the book, it is necessary to have a working understanding of American history, something in which I personally have very little knowledge of. However, regardless of my historical (and political) ignorance, I found myself fully immersed in the colourful, rich story that Irving has written. ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ moved me to tears in one moment, and had me in stitches the next; a thoroughly pleasurable read.
I hope to share with you some of the books that have left an imprint on me; whether it’s a book that kept me company into the wee hours of the morning, or a piece of writing that spurs conversation among a gathering of friends, it is my goal to give you a well-rounded review of the books that have changed the way I look at things – for better, or for worse.
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