Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
A Prayer for Owen Meany is a story of love, friendship, predestination, and the triumphs and pitfalls of growing up. It follows two young boys, Johnny Wheelwright (our narrator) and Owen Meany, as they navigate their way from adolescence to adulthood in a small New Hampshire town. Due to a bizarre series of circumstances, Owen comes to believe his place on earth serves a very specific purpose, and the other realms of the plot conspire to bring us to the inevitable outcome of this belief. The backdrop of the novel spans from the early days of television to the Vietnam war era and beyond, and Owen's fervid obsession with his destiny is intricately tied to each historic event. Owen signs up to serve in the military, but his plans to travel to Vietnam for combat are thwarted, and it is on home soil that his prophetic dream of his final moments takes place. Each piece of Owen's identity plays an explicit role in his heroic death. In the end, Johnny is left wondering who he is without Owen, and ardently wishing that he (and the rest of the world) could have Owen back.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I first read this book when I was a senior in high school, in Mrs. Brown's AP Literature and Composition class (I still miss the excitement of creating an identity for my portfolios - the Clark twins once broke into Mrs. Brown's car and left a tape in her cassette deck that told her to look under her seat to find their portfolio. Mildly disconcerting, but SO COOL!). I remember really enjoying the book then, and admittedly, I liked it much less this time around. I don't know if it's that I'm more critical having read more books now, or if I was more impressionable at the age when I first read it, but either way, I was disappointed on this reading. It's fairly rare that I like a book less on second reading, but it happens, and my devoted readers will know it's happened before with books on this blog. In any case, I do enjoy Irving as an author on the whole, and wouldn't recommend that you avoid him entirely simply because I don't highly recommend this particular work. (The World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire come highly recommended by Diana, if you're interested.) A few of my thoughts, in no real order...
-Irving, to the world: "May I please have a megaphone?"
I think a large part of why I didn't enjoy this book was that it felt like a thinly veiled attempt to give Irving an opportunity to trumpet his personal views to the world. It's nearly impossible for an author not to share some of his beliefs and opinions with his readers, intentionally or not, but in my view, good authors are able to do this in a way that doesn't feel preachy or obvious. Irving rolled out all the contentious subjects you can think of (religion, politics, literature) and took a huge swing at them, with a fairly see-through attempt to use Owen and Johnny as his mouthpiece. Maybe if I had agreed with some of his vitriolic opinions I wouldn't have been so annoyed, but in addition to feeling that Irving was just using his characters to share his own ideas, I also disagreed with most of them. Didn't make for the best connection with his narrator. Next time you want to complain about politics, Irving, just write an op-ed!
-Grandmothers, and the relativity of their logic
I liked Johnny's grandmother, in large part because she reminded me of my own grandmother. Here's a line I loved:
"If she wore cocktail dresses when she labored in her rose garden, they were cocktail dresses that she no longer intended to wear to cocktail parties. Even in her rose garden, she did not want to be seen underdressed. If the dresses got too dirty from gardening, she threw them out. When my mother suggested to her that she might have them cleaned, my grandmother said, "What? And have those people at the cleaners wonder what I was doing in a dress to make it that dirty?"
From my grandmother I learned that logic is relative."
-The trouble with church
While I disagreed with much of Irving's (ahem, Owen and Johnny's) feelings about religion, I did like this line about church. (NB: The capitals are courtesy of Irving - whenever Owen speaks, it's written in all capitals.)
"A PERSON'S FAITH GOES AT ITS OWN PACE. THE TROUBLE WITH CHURCH IS THE SERVICE. A SERVICE IS CONDUCTED FOR A MASS AUDIENCE. JUST WHEN I START TO LIKE THE HYMN, EVERYONE PLOPS DOWN TO PRAY. JUST WHEN I START TO HEAR THE PRAYER, EVERYONE POPS UP TO SING. AND WHAT DOES THE STUPID SERMON HAVE TO DO WITH GOD? WHO KNOWS WHAT GOD THINKS OF CURRENT EVENTS? WHO CARES?"
-"Did you copy that? Copycat."
So I didn't mention this in the plot summary, as it was a fairly bare-bones version of events, but one of the larger plot points centers around Johnny not knowing the identity of his father. His mother claims she had a fling on a train, but Owen and Johnny are convinced that Johnny's father was present at the baseball game where Johnny's mother was accidentally killed, and they spend much of the later part of the novel trying to remember all of the faces in the bleacher seats. In the end, rather anticlimactically, Johnny's father is a sort of loser of a preacher, Reverend Merrill. I found this to be particularly dull, considering that the illegitimate child in The Scarlet Letter (another New England tale) is also fathered by the Reverend (Arthur Dimmesdale). I know it's not like there's a monopoly on illegitimate fathers, but it seemed a little cliché to me. There were so many other options, Irving! Why not the mailman, or the next-door neighbor?
-Love, and a bit wiv an armadillo
One of my favorite parts of the book was the stuffed armadillo that Dan (Johnny's eventual stepfather) brings to Johnny the first time he meets him. Here are a few of my favorite armadillo-themed passages:
Dan: "You must be Johnny. I know you can be trusted with an important package. It's not for you, it's not for anyone your age. But I'm trusting you to put it somewhere where it can't be stepped on - and out of the way of any pets, if you have pets. You mustn't let a pet near it. And whatever you do, don't open it. Just tell me if it moves." hagh. fanTastic way to meet someone. Next time I meet someone new, I'll know to bring them a stuffed armadillo in a brown paper bag. SooPrize!
"When Owen would sleep in the other twin bed in my room, with the night table between us, we would carefully arrange the armadillo under the bedside lamp; in exact profile to both of us, the creature stared at the feet of our beds."
Owen, to Johnny: "FROM WHAT YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR COUSINS, I DON'T THINK YOU SHOULD TAKE THE ARMADILLO TO SAWYER DEPOT. It had never occurred to me to take the armadillo with me, but Owen had clearly given some though to the potential tragedy of such a journey. "YOU MIGHT FORGET IT ON THE TRAIN. OR THAT DOG OF THEIRS MIGHT CHEW ON IT. WHAT'S THE DOG'S NAME?"
"YES, FIREWATER - HE SOUNDS DANGEROUS TO THE ARMADILLO TO ME. AND IF YOUR COUSINS ARE THESE RUFFIANS, LIKE YOU SAY, THERE'S NO TELLING WHAT KIND OF GAME THEY MIGHT THINK UP - THEY MIGHT RIP THE ARMADILLO TO PIECES, OR LOSE IT IN THE SNOW."
"Yes, you're right."
"IF THEY WANTED TO TAKE THE ARMADILLO WATERSKIING, COULD YOU STOP THEM?"
"THAT'S JUST WHAT I THOUGHT. YOU BETTER NOT TAKE THE ARMADILLO WITH YOU. YOU BETTER LET ME TAKE IT HOME. I CAN LOOK AFTER IT WHILE YOU'RE AWAY."
"I never thought of that."
"WELL, IT WOULD BE VERY SAFE WITH ME." adorable. I love the idea of Owen taking home the treasured armadillo and snuggling it into his room.
-Owen meets the ruffian cousins
"WELL, I'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT WHAT WE COULD DO. THE RIVER IS FROZEN, SO THE SKATING IS VERY GOOD, AND I KNOW YOU ENJOY VERY ACTIVE THINGS LIKE THAT - THAT YOU ENJOY THINGS LIKE SPEED AND DANGER AND COLD WEATHER. SO SKATING IS ONE IDEA. AND EVEN THOUGH THE RIVER IS FROZEN, I'M SURE THERE ARE CRACKS SOMEWHERE, AND EVEN PLACES WHERE THERE ARE HOLES OF OPEN WATER - I FELL IN ONE LAST YEAR. I'M NOT SUCH A GOOD SKATER, BUT I'D BE HAPPY TO GO WITH YOU, EVEN THOUGH I'M GETTING OVER A COLD, SO I SUPPOSE I SHOULDN'T BE OUTSIDE FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME IN THIS WEATHER." This was such a great scene because Owen was really nervous to meet the crazy cousins. I didn't mention it, but Owen is extremely diminutive (just 5 feet tall) and rather delicate, and Johnny's cousins are rabble-rousing crazy cats. Johnny is shocked by their reaction to Owen, and I just loved the way Owen jumped right in the first time he met them and called their bluff.
-It's called foreshadowing, not "beat-you-over-the-head"-shadowing
Part of my annoyance with this book stemmed from the fact that Irving was, as I put it to Diana, 'more heavy-handed than Dickens with his foreshadowing'. And let me tell you, that's Saying Something. It's one thing to know from the beginning of the book that Owen will die, but Every Single Event was something we Already Knew Was Going to Happen. Hello, Irving, where's the element of surprise?
-Johnny, on losing his mother
"When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time - the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone."
In her later years, Johnny's grandmother starts to struggle with remembering things, and she wreaks some pretty serious havoc on her various servants. I loved this passage in particular:
"Grandmother hid her wigs so that these luckless ladies could not find them; then she would abuse these fools for misplacing her vital headpieces.
'Do you actually expect me to wander the world as if I were an addlepated bald woman escaped from the circus?' she would say.
'Missus Wheelwright - where did you put your wigs?' the women would ask her.
'Are you actually accusing me of intentionally desiring to look like the lunatic victim of a nuclear disaster?' my grandmother would ask them. 'I would rather be murdered by a maniac than be bald!'
More wigs were bought; most - but by no means all - of the old wigs were found. When Grandmother especially disliked a wig, she would retire it in the rose garden by submerging it in the birdbath.
And when the Poggios continued to send total strangers to her door - intent on startling her - Harriet Wheelwright responded by startling them in return. She would dart to open the door for them - sprinting ahead of Ethel or Ethel's replacements - and she would greet the terrified delivery boys by snatching her wig off her head and shrieking at them while she was bald." ahghaghaghaghaghaghagha. Remind me to start stuffing unwanted items in the birdbath, Mom! And next time I have a bad hair day and someone dares to comment on it, I'll have to remember to retort, "Are you actually accusing me of intentionally desiring to look like the lunatic victim of a nuclear disaster?" ahghaghaghaghaghaghahg.
Sentences that struck me:
- My grandmother said that Owen resembled an embryonic fox.
- I suddenly realized what small towns are. They are places where you grow up with the peculiar - you live next to the strange and the unlikely for so long that everything and everyone become commonplace.
- There was not a night when my mother lay in her bed unable to see the comforting figure of the dressmaker's dummy; it was not only her confederate against the darkness, it was her double.
- Even faintly sordid silliness excited us if it put us in contact with love.
Onwards to The Young Boy and the Pond. Join me if you feel inspired! Find the courage to live the way of life you love. Enjoy the crunching of leaves, the pumpkin-spiced beverages, and the crisp air on your cheeks while you can. Winter is on its way!