There are so many novels I love – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Empire Falls by Richard Russo, Bag of Bones by Stephen King, White Oleander by Janet Fitch – to pick just one seemed limiting but eventually it came to me.
John Irving is one of my favorite authors, I love most of his novels and his work means more to me than I care to admit. Mostly because to admit exactly how much I love John Irving would be…worrisome, but I find his levity, his literary flights of fancy, and his sense of humor to be infinitely appealing. The Hotel New Hampshire stole my heart at an early age. It was also one of my first forays into quirky literary fiction and that has been my literature of choice ever since. This dark fable had everything I wanted – an eccentric, but loving family, travel, humor, drama, Freud, and a circus bear – and many things I already had (unfortunately). Though I never did want (or have) a stuffed dog…
In The Hotel New Hampshire, life is irreverently examined inside out and upside down, it’s subverted, avenged, and embraced. This novel is the chronicle of life, love, death, and dreams. It’s entirely unconventional and there are no guaranteed happy endings (I borrow the term “happy fatalism” quite often in regards to my own life). I think it’s entirely brilliant, although I suspect I enjoy reading about unconventional families because my own upbringing was unconventional. I lived in a variety of places with a variety of people (none quite as exotic as Viennese terrorists) and never called anywhere home for long. This is true of the family in the novel as well, yet Irving has a way of creating characters – the lovable grandfather, the dreamer father, and the eccentric siblings – that you’d want to be related to. This is all very appealing to a person who never really had a family. I wanted to know John, Lily, Frank, Iowa Bob, and Freud.
Further, Irving’s writing, while extremely funny, also had an edge of utter bleakness that I find quite realistic. Depression and self-doubt run rampant throughout the novel and I find this reminiscent of my own life (specifically the latter). I’m fairly certain that, in my mind, I’ll never quite be good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, thin enough, successful enough, etc. and it’s nice to see a darkly humorous approach to this feeling (admittedly I find supremely self-confident people to be quietly perverse). And honestly, if you can’t laugh about your shortcomings, you have to cry. And I truly love to laugh. This particular quote about acceptance has stuck with me:
Human beings are remarkable – at what we can learn to live with. If we couldn’t get strong from what we lose, and what we miss, and what we want and can’t have, then we couldn’t ever get strong enough, could we?
The Hotel New Hampshire is bizarre, ridiculous, and odd. The novel walks the fine line between humane and heartfelt and crass and uncomfortable. It’s about rape, incest, accidents, death, hotels, bears, terrorism, and taxidermy. It’s also about acceptance, love, and family. In some ways, it’s about everything I always – and never – wanted. Irving, somewhere within all of the absurdity, manages to create a beautiful portrait of the strange paths life leads us down. This novel has been one of my favorites for 15 years and I expect I’ll always regard the novel with the same warmth and affection as I do now.
Rory O’Connor is a science and engineering librarian who lives in Denver, Colorado. Despite her ardent love of organization, she also loves the unpredictable world of fiction and film. You can find her on her blog Fourth Street Review.
Your turn: What’s your favourite John Irving novel?