The question, “Who is your favourite novelist?” is as impossible to answer as what’s your favourite piece of music but should I be cast adrift on the proverbial desert island with a limited reading list there is no doubt that John Irving would feature.
Currently, I am being tormented by the opening chapters of ‘Last Night in Twisted River’. I now know more than I ever wanted to about logging on the dangerous rivers of New Hampshire. So why persist? Because, as ever, I am warming to his characters and because ultimately, Irving never disappoints.
I could have given up in the early part of ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ which is now undoubtedly one of my favourite books, but when all the pieces fall into place you think “Ah now I get it!” And I suspect that Irving’s latest novel will reward the effort and unwrap surprises I can’t anticipate.
But to recommend one Irving book – despite believing that his early masterpiece ‘The World According to Garp’, which Irving agrees sees us all as ‘terminal cases’, will always be his classic - ‘A Widow For One Year’ would make good reading for anyone new to the writer
The central character, Ruth Cole, is not your conventionally nice person. She is like the eponymous T S Garp difficult and often dislikeable but like Garp quite irresistible. Her story is told in three parts covering 1958, 1990 and 1995.
We first meet Ruth when she is four and her mother, Marion, is involved in an affair with 16-year-old Eddie O’Hare, working as an intern for Ruth’s father, Ted. Marion’s disappearance and Eddie’s summer job ending, Ruth is left in the care of her father, a once successful children’s author now taken up with his succession of sordid affairs. There are dramas and laughs, like the spectacle of Ted Cole running through neighbouring gardens to escape a rejected mistress.
Ruth is then revisited as an unmarried successful novelist, another recurring Irving theme as many of his characters are writers as are most of those in this book. Although unsuccessful in her personal life and with her mother’s absence still a huge unresolved void, Ruth is promoting her third big selling novel when Eddie O’Hare reemerges.
In the final part of Ruth’s story we see her as a widow and single mother of 41, having married and lost her reliable editor Allan. Irving brings all his characters back together in the end: the debauched Ted, Eddie, also a novelist, who has remained in love with Marion throughout, and the absent mother who, having suffered the deaths of her two sons abandoned her only living child for 37 years.
Ruth is, at last, to find love for the first time and you can’t help but think that perhaps her creative process described in the book – give birth to your characters and face them with life choices – might mirror John Irving’s own.
This is a novel that explores love and grief, travels from Ruth’s Long Island childhood, to the red light district of Amsterdam, with a murder along the way. It is, in the end, a funny sad family saga hung about with the chaos caused by the dictates of fate, sex and foolishness.
Read it and if you don’t love it Irving won’t be on your desert island list.