A Prayer for Owen Meany


John Irving


Fiction / Literature


Date Reviewed:

July 12, 2004

went back and forth on my grade for this book - 4 stars or 5 stars? I only want to give 5 stars to the books I think are the very best. A Prayer for Owen Meany is terrific. I laughed aloud at several scenes, especially the Christmas Pageant debacle. Any book that can make me laugh has got to be given high marks. But there is a whole lot more to this book than some inspired scenes of funniness. I have read a number of other books by Irving (Water Method Man, Hotel New Hampshire, but only A Prayer for Owen Meany measures up to the classic The World According to Garp (The World According to Garp is a 5 star all-time classic). A Prayer for Owen Meany proves Irving is not a one hit wonder, but is indeed a great writer.

The book is 600+ pages long (in my paperback edition) and Irving uses the space to describe a whole town full of people. Of course, Owen Meany gets the most character development, and a marvelous character he is - witty, funny, and doomed. The story is related by John the narrator, who is Owen Meany's best friend. Owen is an unnaturally small sized child, when he grows to his full height he is 4 feet tall. But he is brilliant. Everything that Owen Meany says in the book is written in CAPITAL LETTERS, this is meant to remind us of Owen's voice, which sounds so unusual everyone can't help but listen to what he says. (Owen is the instrument of God, so perhaps he is speaking in God's voice? Is his small size and weightlessness to remind us of an angel? There is a ton of symbolism in this story, it is deliberately loaded with religious subject matter - English teachers will have a field day assigning papers to their students.)

The other characters are also a delight - John's Mom is a singer with a mysterious past (John doesn't know who his father is). At the very beginning of the novel, she gets killed by a foul ball hit off of the bat of Owen Meany as she is waving to John's father in the stands at the game. John's grandmother and his out-of-control cousins are also a delight. Heck, the entire town population is well described, and Irving fleshes them all out. Irving seems to have a knack for sympathetically describing the odd condition that is human existence.

So why doesn't this book merit 5 stars? Because when Owen Meany is off stage, it drags. There is about 100 pages of material written by John-the-narrator as an adult, about 25 years after Owen Meany exits the narrative. This 100 pages drags. There is a bunch of anti-Reagan stuff, and I am certainly no fan of the Reagan administration - but those chapters are out of place with the rest of the story. The editor should have just excised the entire post-Meany pages, they are drudgery. John the narrator is the least interesting of the varied characters who populate Owen's world, and when all those characters are absent, we are left with an older and wiser but also uninteresting stories about John. So I withheld the 5 stars.

I don't want to end this review with a negative paragraph however - it really is a terrific book. I would call Irving the modern day Charles Dickens, except I haven't read enough Dickens to make a comparison. (ooh! There is another assignment for you English teachers. How is John Irving like or not like Charles Dickens!) This is a good book! But if you haven't read The World According to Garp, read that first.