Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review - The World According To Garp by John Irving

John Irving’s classic The World According to Garp is not a simple novel. True, the book, while being very much a page-turner, does not have a simple plot involving simple characters. Rather, author and wrestler T.S. Garp, his family and loved ones share a world that is neither pleasant nor clean. It is a world filled with an ear biting dog who in turn gets his own ear bitten off, a former football player for the Philadelphia Eagles who becomes a woman, a last fling in an affair that leads to tragedy and women who cut out their tongue to support a tongue less woman who wishes to speak. It is within this novel that I found myself laughing, crying, feeling sorry for myself, anger and finally a quiet resolution, all of which only John Irving can create.
When I first watched the movie many years ago, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Sure, it had its funny moments (who couldn’t forget John Lithgow as a woman?), however I felt as though the movie did not move me in any way. That and the fact that I was a child when I watched it. Watching the movie years later, it made a deeper impact; however by the time, I was ready to read the book. I also read reviews of the novel on and found myself at a loss for not having read it yet. So, while attending a book sale at the main library, I found a hardback copy of the novel for $2.00 and purchased it immediately.
After reading A Widow For One Year and The Fourth Hand, I knew what to expect from Irving; now I realize that those novels paled in comparison to Garp. This novel was John Irving at his finest (my own opinion) and anything else I read by him will immediately be compared to this work. From Garp’s moment of conception in a hospital to his untimely death, the readers get a glimpse of a life that was and never would be conventional. His mother, nurse for life Jenny Fields, is a strong and proud woman and yet with a hint of naïveté about the world. All she knows is what she needs to know; anything else is merely substantial.
One of the larger themes in this novel is love. Jenny Fields’ love for Garp was pure and without any taint of the outside world for she had none to give, thereby setting the stage for Garp and his attempts of being in love. He finds a sense of mothering love from Charlotte, the prostitute in Vienna, a passionate and yet restrained love with his wife, Helen, and an adoring and father/daughter love with Ellen James, the tongue less rape victim who becomes his adopted daughter. And yet, through all of these different stages of love, he still searches for something else, something that will make him what he thinks he needs to be. Is he a writer, a wrestler, or perhaps something more? Maybe something less. However, it is towards the end that he seems to have found “it”, whatever it is, only to have it flow away from him like blood from the bullet wounds in his body made by “Pooh” Percy. Roberta, formerly Robert, searches for love in all the wrong places (pun intended) only to realize just how cruel the world can truly be, both for women and men. Helen, once satisfied with her love to and from Garp, later tries to find a pale facsimile of it in the student Michael Milton (who adores her) only to have it end in the loss of her younger child, Walt, and a quite painful lesson learned.
Some of the scenes are quite graphic and yet, thanks to Irving’s hypnotic writing, one cannot pull away from the story. I found myself wanting to know what else could happen in this world where the unordinary happened to the ordinary. What will happen next? When the novel ended, I wished there were more pages regarding this family, more words to possibly add. When I closed the book, I realized that the book began with a Jenny and ended with a Jenny; both were strong women who lived their lives by their rules and made no compromises in a world that lived for such activity. It seemed fitting for this kind of work as well as this world that, according to Garp, we are all Terminal Cases.

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