Written by Lauryn Smith
My interest in John Irving’s writing began after I read his award-winning “The World According to Garp” in high school. I promise to give a review of “Garp” as soon as I replace my lost copy, which met its fate in a puddle of water. (Trust me, though, you must read it!) For now, let’s talk about “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Irving’s all-time best-selling novel. The fictional story is deep, poignant, complexly germane and truly captivating.
The titular character, Owen, is an intelligent, small-statured, shrill-voiced, 11-year-old son of a quarryman. He grows up in Gravesend, New Hampshire, with his best buddy John Wheelwright, whose family comes from old money. John narrates the twists and turns of their relationship, from the Little League baseball game during which Owen’s foul ball kills John’s mother to Owen’s death, a divinely crafted occurrence that Owen adamantly believes he has foreseen. This novel is one of predestined heroism and a boy determined to curate his life experiences in preparation for his final act. (The vagueness concerning Owen’s fate is necessary—spoilers! I can say, however, that in his role as the Ghost of Christmas Future for a production of “A Christmas Carol,” he inexplicably sees his name and date of death on Scrooge’s gravestone, which fortifies his ideas about his purpose and his link with God.) The majority of the story takes place throughout the 1950s and 1960s, so readers get to follow Owen and John as they transition from days composed of TV viewing and rounds of armadillo hide-and-seek (read the book to see what I mean – it is a whole thing) to days composed of collegiate activities and wartime rhetoric.
Several themes are unmissable. Perhaps the most notable motif that Irving explores if that of friendship. (Example “aww” moments include 1) the trustful sharing of treasured baseball cards between Owen and John and 2) Owen’s voluntarily repeating grade nine when he learns that John was held back, all so that they might attend Gravesend Academy together.) Also prominent are the concepts of religion and faith as well as the corresponding concept of doubt. In addition, Irving cleverly integrates insights into the stateside turmoil associated with the Vietnam War. Though these topics hold the story together, they are arguably tangential to a larger theme, that is, the loss of one’s childhood and the beautiful tragedy of maturing.
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