The BBC surveyed its listeners, (I think it was either in 2003 or 2006) to see what their favorite books were. From their results they made a list of the Top 100 Novels. For May the McBride Library’s Book Club had its members pick a book from the list and read it. I read John Irving’s A Prayer For Owen Meany. Here is my review:
A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving
A Prayer For Owen Meany is a novel of two childhood friends growing up in New Hampshire during the 50’s and early 60’s. The main character is Johnny Wheelwright and his best friend is Owen Meany. Owen, although the same age as Johnny, is extremely small in size, so small that the other kids always pick him up and pass him around, when the teacher leaves the classroom. When Johnny and Owen were 11 years old, Owen was just the size of a five year old.
Owen, however was extremely bright, serious, observant, and opinionated. It was not just his small size that made Owen unique, he also had a voice which was very high and screechy. Because his home life left much to be desired, Owen spent a good deal’ of time over at Johnny’s. Johnny lived in his grandmother’s big house with his grandmother and beautiful single parent mother. Johnny’s mother doted on Owen and treated him very sympathetically. Owen loved Johnny’s mother.
Both Johnny and Owen played on a Little League team. Due to Owen’s small size, he didn’t get to play much. But one particular day, Owen did get to bat, and amazingly got a solid hit on a ball. It flew foul, and hit Johnny’s mother in the face, killing her. This devastating accident impacts both of the boys’ lives and becomes a central event in the story.
The tragic accident tightens the friendship between the boys, which continues through their elementary, high school, and university years. Through it all, Owen’s character and intellect cause him notoriety, but he usually managed to get out of trouble he created, unscathed. Throughout his life Owen felt sure that a God had made him the way he was for some big purpose, and the reader can’t help but wonder and anticipate the event.
At the end, the novel does tie up a lot of the loose threads were left dangling throughout the storyline. That was a relief, because as I read along through the book, I was often puzzled and frustrated about why certain things happened.
There were many sections that dealt with religion; Christian denominations, and ministers and their beliefs, that I certainly could have lived without. They didn’t really add anything to the sweep of the novel and often felt like fill. Johnny ends up living in Toronto and much time was spent telling about his religious life there. Very little relevant information for the story happened in Toronto.
I found it interesting how the tale played out. There were hints of things to come, that gave the reader an inkling of what would happen to Owen in the future, but the reality of that event was different from what the reader had expected.
Because this coming-of-age story covered approximately the same time period as my life (mine happened about four years later) I enjoyed being reminded a lot of the events and lifestyles of those times that were mentioned in the novel. The Kennedy’s, Vietnam, immigrating to Canada, and hating Reagan and the rightwing madness of the US, were all were part of my life too. I particularly related to the line: “After almost twenty years in Canada there are certain American lunatics who still fascinate me.”
I also could relate to Johnny’s friendship with Owen, because in my youth, one of my best friends was much smarter and more aware of things than I was and he kept me informed of events in the wider world.
Luckily when I got to the last page, things made more sense, which elevated my opinion of the novel, that had suffered during all the slow sections when it bogged down. I certainly wouldn’t rate it in my top one hundred, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as the other John Irving novels I have read, but it was okay.