Sometimes literary fiction can be stranger than fantasy. This book is a prime example of that. Man, it was weird.
I honestly haven’t been able to decide how I feel about it. I don’t remember ever struggling this much with how to rate a book. On the one hand, this was a unique story told well, with an original and unforgettable cast of characters. On the other hand, it was crude and vulgar at a level that seemed knowingly used to scandalize the reader and keep them absorbed in the story. There were multiple scenes that were incredibly shocking, and felt like they were included for the sole purpose of eliciting gasps of shock. This is sensationalism, pure and simple. I finally decided to settle at four stars, because this is an impactful book with remarkable prose, but I didn’t always appreciate the tactics used to ensure the proper response from the reader.
The whole reason I decided to read this book in the first place was because a wonderful new author whose debut I adored (Cheris Wolas with The Resurrection of Joan Ashby) recommended it. It’s one of her favorites, and her novel has even been compared to it. I completely get that comparison. Here we have the story of an author whose writing was interrupted by marriage and parenthood, who is trying to find their way back to the writing of their youth. Not only do we get the story of the author in these books, but we also get pieces of their writing, so we can experience their art firsthand, which was one of my favorite aspects of both books. I love when authors (referring to Wolas and Irving here, not Ashby and Garp) stretch themselves like this in a book, including various stories written by a fictional character whose voice they had to both create and differentiate from their own. That shows amazing craftsmanship and dedication to their art, in my opinion.
Although I agree with the comparison, I have to confess that I found Joan Ashby and her story superior in every way to that of T.S. Garp. Wolas never used sensationalism to play on my emotions; she elicited them honestly, with a story well told. The shocks in her story never felt cheap or too well-planned to be viewed as honest.
That being said, I understand the appeal and popularity of Garp. His is an unforgettable story, and it’s one that will stick with me. It’s a story that resonates; it just didn’t resonate as deeply with me as I expected. This was my first foray into the writing of John Irving. While it was an odd book that left my response to it muddled, it was without a doubt an interesting experience. This definitely won’t be my last Irving novel.