Not long ago, my fiancee told me about this book she had to read back in high school that she hated for most of her time reading it, yet wound up liking in the end. Wouldn’t you know she found that exact book at a Goodwill for me shortly after mentioning it? Naturally, she made it her mission to make me read it, telling me I couldn’t read any other books until I finished it. I couldn’t help but break that rule, though, because my word this was a slog. She kept promising me it would get better, but I struggled to find a single redeeming element to keep me pushing forward. If this had been assigned reading for me, I would’ve done what I did with Tess of the d’Urbervilles (which our main character amusingly enough teaches his students later on in the book) back in 12th grade AP English and resorted to SparkNotes rather than read any further. I mean, where do I start?
To begin with, Owen Meany himself is an insufferable little twit. To think that anybody, even his friend John Wheelwright, would come to bat (pun intended) for him willingly struck me as increasingly peculiar. All he did was dig his own hole deeper and deeper and push people away further and further, yet people stuck by him for some reason, and in some cases even seemed to celebrate him. It was maddening. He did nothing but start shit with everyone of all ages, friend or foe, and take it to unnecessary extremes, all the while convinced that he simply knew everything, including the day and manner of his own death.
On top of that, he’s a shining example of one of my biggest qualms with the book: the rampant misogyny. I lost track of how many times Owen and John had talks about the breasts of John’s own mother, for instance. In one case, they went about comparing and contrasting the breasts of all the women they knew to hers. Then there’s John’s cousin Hester, who John spends much of the early stages of the novel having inappropriate thoughts about, and who he spends the rest of the novel describing as (I’m paraphrasing) probably drunk and/or shacking up with countless men. Or there’s Owen propositioning another student’s mother for sex because she dared suggest Marilyn Monroe was having sexual relations with JFK??? Or basically any woman in the book being reduced to their sex appeal or lack thereof. One even made Owen pop a boner as the Christ Child during a school play. Like, I get teenagers are sex-crazed, but… I more than reached my limit with this book.
Next there was the endless ranting about politics. It felt like half this book was John just giving us an angry history lesson about Ronald Reagan. I get the parts about the Vietnam war when we get to that, since it’s directly relevant to their own story, but I think most of the other historical bull cocky could’ve been excised without anything of worth being lost. It felt too soap-boxy for my tastes and I skimmed those sections as fast as I possibly could. I don’t read fiction to be preached to, or to get taught history. Please, just get back to your actual story.
Lastly, without being too spoilery, I’ll say that while things do “come together” at the end (as my fiancee told me), the end result is worse as opposed to better for me. The revelations you get, one after the other, left me shaking my head in disbelief, and not in a good way. I would rather the mystery of John’s father have remained a mystery, for example. And the shocking news about Owen in particular had me wanting to rage quit the book. The rest of Owen’s story was groan worthy, but that extra added detail was just a heaping helping of WTF.
Having read this book, I can safely say that I will actively avoid any and all books by John Irving from here on out, since this is supposedly one of his best. Please tell me if that’s wrong of me, if his other works are markedly different. I sincerely doubt it, but I’m willing to reconsider.