John Irving’s much lauded (and very long) novel The Cider House Rules has been sat on my bookshelf for years and years. A completely random teenage purchase that I have picked up time and time again and abandoned 50 pages in every. single. time. I therefore, feeling like I’ve grown up enough now to get through the books I have struggled with in the past, took the plunge, and boy was it a plunge!
Our story begins with Wilbur Larch; an obstetrician, undercover abortionist and father to St Clouds’ orphanage; a place of displaced and abandoned children where we meet Homer Wells, a quite singular little boy who, despite various attempts made to find suitable foster families, constantly and quite unintentionally boomerangs back to the place that he and reluctant father figure Dr. Larch, call home. Growing up close to the doctor, his nurses and their delicate procedures, Homer grows into a remarkable young man; capable of great introspection and independent thought, a man whose fate lies far beyond the realms of the humble St Clouds.
One day, this strange, isolated little world is broken up by the arrival of the sweet (as her name denotes) Candy Kendall and the buff, quite lovely, all-American Wally Worthington; heir to a thriving apple orchard on the coast and the soon to be home of Homer Wells as he drives off into the sunset with his new found friends, leaving broken hearts behind among his large adoptive family. What started off as a short break away from his home becomes an entire lifetime of drama, love and loss until Homer comes around full circle and we are left realising what Wilbur Larch and his apprentice were really placed on this earth to do.
To be honest I found this book very slow going initially. (I’ve already been criticised for complaining about this on Twitter so please go easy on me!) I really felt and still do, after persevering right up to the very end, that this book is waaaaayy too long. More precisely, the first …say-200 pages I could really have condensed into just two chapters. Yes, yes, I know this is a classic and that John Irving is a ‘legend’ but the repetitive nature, particularly of Wilbur Larch’s very important, but rambling initial narrative really tried me and made me realise why I found this book difficult to push through in my younger days. Should anyone really feel like they need to ‘push through’ a book at all? Although I heartily support the space this novel gives to the issues and arguments for and against abortion and the challenges that women faced in order to take back control of their own bodies in the early 20th century, certain passages of the novel (again, in the initial chapters) detailing each and every stage of the queasy process were particularly difficult to stomach, mainly due to the circular narrative and definitely on a slightly hungover bus ride to work in the morning. Geeee, I’m sure I’ve read this all before somewhere!?
Complaining over, this is nevertheless one of those relieving times where you choose to read on and come up trumps. Homer Wells leaves St Clouds and when he does, life begins for both our main protagonist and his intrepid reader…
There are a few large volumes lurking in the deep dark depths of my TBR that really, given the right mood, give me something that a novel of an ordinary length could never hope to achieve. 700 pages and layer upon layer of narrative allows you to immerse yourself so completely in a story that you emerge blinking into the sunlight and feeling like you have wandered out of an alternate reality, so deeply acquainted with characters, times and places that you wonder how you ever did without them. John Irving does paint some fabulous portraits and creates some fantastically memorable characters; Homer’s childhood girlfriend and future stalker Melony being an absolute favourite; wild, tough and tormented I find it impossible to see how they left such a key character out of the well-known Hollywood filmic adaptation of the novel.
Happily my initial experience of The Cider House Rules (and my first John Irving book) was not ruined by its rambling beginning and I would return to his work in the future. Homer’s life with Candy and Wally is well worth exploring, as is life working at the Cider House, where uncomfortable topics such as racism, war and abortion live side by side with the pressing of apples and making of friends and are dealt with purposively and sensitively. Although Homer moves on from his humble and unconventional beginnings, Wilbur Larch’s legacy will effect him more than he realises, but thank god that he gets to see a little of the world first and that we get to join him in that discovery.