I wonder if anybody reads John Irving any more? He had a huge success if the 1970s (I think) with The World According to Garp, and followed this up with several highly praised novels. I remember reading and enjoying Garp and I think I may have read one or two more, but I'd never heard of this, which came out in 1999. I might never have read it at all, but I found it among a pile of free books recently and thought it looked interesting. I'm really glad I picked it up, because it was a hugely enjoyable read.
This is a story that spans many decades. It begins in 1958 when sixteen year old Eddie O'Hare is employed by the once successful novelist Ted Cole as a writer's assistant. As Ted hardly does any writing any more, simply producing the occasional, strange, and disturbing, children's book from time to time, it's not clear what Eddie's role is to consist of, but in any case he is given odd bits of driving (Ted's lost his license) and shopping to do, and is comfortably ensconced in Ted's quite palatial house in the Hamptons. Here too live Ted's estranged wife Marion and their four year old daughter Ruth. A terribly tragedy hangs over the family - Ted and Marion's two teenage sons died in a horrific car crash before Ruth was born, and the whole house is hung with photos of them at various stages of their development. Ted is chronically adulterous, seducing strings of young mothers, who he photographs and paints in increasingly crude and humiliating portraits, and Marion is deeply unhappy. Soon, however, she is involved in an intensely sexual affair with Eddie, despite the 23 year age gap between them. At the end of the summer, though, Marion packs up all her belongings, takes all the photos off the walls, and disappears. Eddie, devastated, makes his way home and back to school.
Flash forward to 1990. Eddie is now 48 and Ruth is 36. Both have become novelists, though Ruth is much more successful than Eddie, who endlessly writes variations on the story of a very young man's affair with an older woman, something he himself has never recovered from. He and Ruth have never encountered each other, until he is asked to introduce her at a book reading she has agreed to do. He makes a bit of a mess of it, but the meeting is important to them and they become good friends. Attractive successful and intelligent, Ruth has not made great success of her personal life, having had a succession of unsuitable temporary boyfriends, though she is presently being pursued by her editor, who wants to marry her. Neither of them has ever heard a word from Marion, though both long to do so. Eddie eventually tracks her down to Canada, where she too has become a writer of fairly mediocre crime novels. Ted Cole is still alive and extremely fit for his 73 years, still able to beat Ruth at squash, and still pursuing young mothers.
Ruth goes to Europe on a book tour, and while in Amsterdam becomes fascinated by the red light district. She starts to conceive a new novel, to be called My Last Bad Boyfriend, in which a young woman gets involved with a man who persuades her to join him in watching a prostitute with a client. In the interest of research, she gets to know a sympathetic prostitute, and ends up hiding in a wardrobe when a client arrives, only to witness the poor woman's murder. She writes an anonymous letter to the police, which ends up in the hands of a book-loving policeman, and enables him to find the killer, though he becomes obsessed with the seemingly impossible task of finding out the identity of the mystery witness.
There's more, much more. The third section of the novel takes us forward again to 1995, to find Ruth recently widowed, the mother of a small son, and.... But I've told you quite enough of the plot. What none of this will convey is what a joyful, funny, sometimes heart-wrenching story this is. John Irving is a wrestler as well as a writer, and his books seem to be bursting with the same kind of physical energy. He has a terrific imagination, and you could never predict the extraordinary twists and turns the novel takes you on. I read somewhere that Irving has been criticised for not writing full and convincing female characters, but that's certainly not true here. Apart from Ruth and Marion (who we don't meet again till almost the end), there's also Ruth's friend Hannah, as crudely sexual as Ruth is retiring and uncertain of her own sexuality, and of course Red Dolores, the prostitute who dies so tragically.
Although it's a bit of a cliché, I really want to describe this as a roller-coaster of a novel. At 668 pages it's satisfyingly long and I enjoyed every single minute. I seem to have become dependent on chance to provide my reading matter lately (see also Maigret Goes to School, which I reviewed last week), and it's working out really well. I've just plucked another book off a free shelf and I'm also enjoying that, so hopefully you will hear about it soon.