I really like John Irving novels. I like how they have no real plot, that they’re just sprawling histories of an individual, or a family, and that he sucks you into these peoples’ lives over the course of 500 pages or so. While The Hotel New Hampshire was not my favorite of what I’ve read of Irving’s so far, I still enjoyed it and the themes that he tends to hit on again and again.
“Human beings are remarkable – at what we can learn to live with. If we couldn’t get strong from what we lose, and what we miss, and what we want and can’t have, then we couldn’t ever get strong enough, could we? What else makes us strong?”
This novel focuses on the Berry family, narrated from the perspective of its second son, John. John’s father and mother met at a hotel in New Hampshire before his father went away to college. They were thrown together after Win Berry decides to purchase a bear named State o’ Maine (later, “Earl”) and his accompanying motorcycle from a Vaudeville man named Freud, who later moves to Vienna. Win marries John’s mother, and they have a few children while he travels the country with the Bear, raising money for his education at Harvard. Later, the family buys a defunct school to renovate into a hotel, and eventually, they end up in Vienna, working for Freud’s hotel (full of revolutionaries, prostitutes, and another bear).
I really liked the first half of the book, where we learn about John’s parents and how his family comes to be. Irving excels at creating insane little backstories for his characters. John’s older sister, Franny, is probably one of the best written Irving characters in my opinion–he’s good at tough, smart women. The novel dragged a bit in Vienna (and gets sad there for a while, as Irving novels do), but picks up again and ends on a strong note. If you like Irving, you should read it. If you haven’t ever read anything by him, I’d recommend starting with A Prayer for Owen Meany or The World According to Garp, instead.