|Naked Charlize Theron playing Candy in the movie version of The Cider House Rules|
The Cider House Rules (1985)
by John Irving
Reading John Irving is fine enough, but like his mentor Kurt Vonnegut, I don't trust him- his sentiment or his prose. I'm sure his presence in the 1001 Books list stems from his ability to achieved critical and popular success while grappling with the sort of tough themes that are often absent from popular fiction, but in the end, it all seems too calculated and upbeat to really ascend to the upper echelons of the literary canon.
Case in point is The Cider House Rules, a well received best-seller, adapted by the author himself into a big budget Miramax production (starring Tobey Maguire at his hottest, a young Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd, of all people.) The film itself was successful, nominated for seven Oscars in 1999 and winning two (best adapted screenplay, best supporting actor Michael Caine.) I'm not saying that middle-brow fiction can't also be high art, but I am saying that John Irving, serious themes aside, is inescapably middle brow, and that his books aren't first-rate works of literature.
To take one example, there is the incest sub-plot of The Cider House Rules, which comes as part of the otherwise strong third act. The victim is the African-American daughter of the African-American foreman of an apple picking crew that handles work at the Apple farm where most of the action takes place. It bother me that Irving, writing in 1985, thought it was cool to use African American character to enact an incest driven plot point in a book set almost entirely in rural Maine. Is that John Irving's story to tell? No it is not. He doesn't do a good job telling it, and it ends up making his African American characters seem less human.
The same could be said for many of Vonnegut's characters, that they are simply transparent vehicles for the author's high-falutin' ideas about humanity. And I suppose you could make the same claim for every successful author, but not really, since so often what we respond to in fiction are finely drawn characters who draw us into their world. The Cider House Rules is about abortion as much as it is about anything, so get ready of 560 pages of opinions about abortion from an old white guy. That he is sympathetic does little to disguise what to me read as really tone-deaf takes on the abortion experience.