26 May 2012

Books: The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving (1981)

Despite liking John Irving, this is only the fourth novel I’ve read of his (he’s got 14 novels, a short story collection and two non-fiction books). He is an extraordinary author, very literate, very dense, yet always readable.

The Hotel New Hampshire, Irving’s fifth book and the first one after The World According to Garp which made him a huge star, is narrated by John Berry, the third of five very eccentric siblings. As the chronicler of their lives, John begins with “Frank's queer, Franny's weird, Lily's small and Egg is Egg.” From that point on, we can assume nothing. The family's adventures begin in New Hampshire, then shifts to Vienna and eventually in Maine. In between we see the quirkiness that keeps this family going and while outsiders might consider then weird, to them, it’s all normal. The father is an often absent, obsessed with his motorcycle and his bear, State of Maine (aka Earl). The mother is perhaps the most normal, but she is a character none the less. Franny, the second oldest child, is a cheerleader and a tomboy, damaged by a brutal rape. John is a sentimental womanizer in love with his sister Franny. The oldest, Frank, is a surprisingly normal (relatively speaking) and sympathetic character, who is a homosexual, who loves to wear uniforms and performs taxidermy on their dead dog Sorrow. Lily is a writer consumed by her failure to grow. 

Like the three previous ones I’ve read –A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules, A Widow for One Year- his novels are character driven. And each character is created and realized in such wonderful ways. Plus, I think, Irving is one of the few authors who can get away with taboo subjects in mainstream fiction. All of his novels carry some of the same themes:  homosexuality, transsexualism, incestuous desires, older women, younger men relationships and bears. 

It’s funny, sad, outrageous, and a moving novel.

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