While writing my previous post, I realized that I had forgotten about a review of one of the best books of 2012. How that happened, I have no idea. I wrote it after finishing the book in November, and just forgot to post the review here. So here it is, before I forget again.
I have started this book twice. The first time I didn’t have the patience for it. I wasn’t prepared for the slow pace, the amount of detail, the careful crafting of the story, each word placed at the perfect spot. The second time, however, I tried to take the story as it was, step by step, to let it flow, to curb my impatience. And it worked. A few years after reading The World According to Garp, I let myself enter John Irving’s fantasy world once again.
The novel tells the story of the Cole family – even if by reading the blurb I was fooled thinking the story was about Ruth Cole, the daughter of Marion and Ted Cole, as the story went on it didn’t feel like that anymore. The story revolves around the Coles, but there are other characters whose lives are linked with this family. There is Eddie, an adolescent who dreams of becoming a writer and whose job as Ted’s assistant will open the door to a lifelong obsession with an older woman. There is Ruth Cole, whom Eddie sees as a 4 year old child and whom he meets decades later. There’s Marion Cole, Ruth’s mother, whose grief over the death of her teenage sons and her husband’s infidelities were things she could not endure. There is also a prostitute living in Amsterdam, a lonely cop, and Ruth’s best friend – all of them with their own tragedies and regrets, all of them with a key role to play in the story.
What I liked about this book was how the author told the story of each of the characters with such depth that each one of them stands apart as a fully formed protagonist. Because of this, the idea of one main character didn’t really apply, or at least that’s how it felt to me.
In spite of the slow pace of the story, there was not a moment of boredom. Irving’s characters are flawed, all of them, but that’s what makes them interesting and realistic. Their sorrows and regrets, their tragedies and joys, are played out one by one, and their live stories add a bitter sweet richness to the narrative.
This is probably the only book I’ve read in which four of the characters are writers. For some of them writing is a form of catharsis, and it is through this form of release that they are able to go on, to heal. There are stories within the story, and one of the perks of reading a book about writers is getting a glimpse into their writing habits and sources of inspiration. That was one of my favorite parts of the novel. If there’s something that felt a bit redundant was how many times the photos of Ruth’s dead brothers were mentioned. Perhaps it was necessary to mention them again and again, perhaps not. Nevertheless this is but a minor thing in an otherwise great narrative.
At times it felt like watching a battle, and the end felt like seeing the survivors. Not the winners necessarily, but those characters whose strength and will to go on made it to the final act. Violence, sex, murder and suicide walk side by side with grief, infidelity and a deep longing for love. Not everybody gets their happily ever after – but by the end of the book I wished they all did. A deeply moving narrative that managed to insinuate itself under my skin, where each character is made up of good and bad, and whose stories I was sad to leave behind.
*Read in November, 2012