The Cider House Rules, the book

The Cider House Rules, John Irving. If you’ve seen the movie, wait a while and forget it before you read this book. Otherwise, I think you will lack patience for the way things develop. It’s 200 pages, for example, before Homer Wells meets the two people who will take him away from the orphanage for the first time and become major forces in his life. It’s a beautiful ride, though, filled with character detail, ethical dilemmas, abuse, drug use, love, illicit love and general, unsure fumbling around as the characters make their own paths. One present but beautifully understated theme is the characters’ struggle with abortion; Irving is clearly on one side, but he accurately captures the real-world (as opposed to some self-righteous prick’s words from a pulpit) ethical debate from both sides.

I don’t want to say much about this book. I feel more with this book than with others that if I say too much, your experience of reading it will be degraded. Further, Irving (in the later pages, which I do not want to discuss for the latter reason) delves deeply into human emotion and need in a heartbreaking way – I simply do not want to write about it here.

One minor bit of criticism: the whole “Rules” concept – that portion of the title and its application throughout Homer’s life, again in the later pages of the book – that concept felt forced and amateurish. Perhaps it was because of title. Just as with a song, choosing a title that reinforces a concept from the text can overpower the impact of that concept within the text itself. I believe that is true in this case. (I do not believe it is to the point where, as is so obvious with some songs, the writer cannot express himself through the lyrics and makes an overt play at fixing everything by choosing a strong title to influence the listener’s perspective on the lyrics.) The rules narrative came together at the end, but before then, in the mid-to-late stages of the book, the reader was forced to make too much of a minor sub-text. I don’t want to blame it all on the title choice: the way it was written about was a little overbearing as well, but it’s partially just Irving’s tendency to avoid subtlety.

That said, though, I loved this book. I’ve loved everything of Irving’s that I have read so far (Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp). They take me time to get through, much more than other books. There is usually a point maybe two thirds of the way through where I can no longer put it down. This is a twenty-five-year-old book, and I’m behind the times, but if you have not read it I’d encourage you to do so.

One more bit of discussion: I’m not here to review the related movie. However, I hadn’t seen it in a while, so I re-watched it right after I finished the book. It may have won awards, but an Irving novel it is not. The complicated relationships of the book became a single, stale, typically Hollywood love-and-rejection tale. The less-than-normal sexuality that is a staple of the Irving novels I’ve read was almost completely excised (more on that in a second). The searching the book’s characters do to find their way on the morality of abortion, the theme throughout that leads the reader to think it through for themselves given the situations portrayed? This was simplified into a blatant, unpalatable pro-abortion message that, I’d imagine, would only serve to reinforce what people already feel about abortion. In fact, the only screwed-up sexual situation that remained in the movie version was one that was necessary to force the abortion issue. I’d never watch the movie again, if I were you. Just read the damn book.

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