Friday Favorites: A Prayer For Owen Meany

Friday, July 2, 2010

In 2008, after traveling through Europe for more than a month, I ran out of books. On long train rides I made my way through half a dozen books I'd brought with me and now I was stranded in Budapest with nothing to read. Luckily, the hostel I was staying in was run by ex-Brits and they told me about an English used bookstore in the area. Since I have zero knowledge of the Hungarian language I was thrilled.

The bookstore was called Tree Hugger Dave's and was small, selling perhaps 200 books at any given time. There was so much pressure to choose the perfect book. I was tight on cash and the next day I would be headed to Eger, a tiny town a few hours from Budapest, which certainly wouldn't have an English bookstore. My options were limited, but after thumbing through some classics and bestsellers I found a battered copy of A Prayer For Owen Meany. I made up my mind, dug out a few notes and paid for my selection.

(Széchenyi thermal bath)

Throughout the next few days it acquired a few new battle scars, drips of water at a
thermal bath, a splash of hot chocolate as I took refuge from a storm in a cafe, drops of bull's blood red wine in the evenings, it went everywhere with me. I'm sure that one of the reasons I connected with this book so immediately was because of the situation in which I was reading it, but I think I would have loved it no matter where I had been.

(Me in Budapest)

About the book:

Owen Meany's best friend John narrates the story as an adult. He reflects on their childhood together and how he has grown bitter over the years; you slowly learn why as his story unfolds. The story takes place in the middle of the 20th century and takes you from a small New England town to a boarding school to Canada.

The characters in this book are just wonderful. John's single mother is the perfect balance of strength and grace. His grandmother is a pip and her unlikely friendship with Owen is odd, but somehow works. Owen himself is like no other character I've ever read about. He is tiny, physically stunted, but has a strange voice and a commanding presence. He believes he was created for a specific purpose, though he doesn't know what that is. He is fiercely intelligent with a self-deprecating wit and unwavering loyalty.

I've heard some people complain about the length, but for me it was perfect. It allowed me to revel in the story, get acquainted with the characters. The funny thing is, as much as I loved this book, I certainly haven't loved everything by Irving. So don't be put off from it if you haven't liked his other work.

A small section of this book was turned into the movie Simon Birch a few years back. I thought that because I'd seen the movie I knew what to expect. Turns out the film covers only a small slice of the plot and distorts even that section. It's not a bad movie, but it barely scratched the surface.

The novel deals with friendship, love, religion, fate, guilt, forgiveness, faith, destiny, and so much more. It's part coming-of-age, part coming to terms with the past. With all of those intense issues you would think this book would be awfully serious, but it's so funny. Owen provides a steady stream of humor both intentionally and unintentionally.

For me this was a strange book, but one that I found myself reflecting on months later. I would think about different characters and scenes and marvel at how well executed the whole thing was. It's an odd premise and it could easily have come across as gimmicky, but Irving avoided those pitfalls and instead, gave us one of the most memorable characters in modern literature.

Photos by moi (and a random elderly couple in Hungary)


Jessica said...

I love the look of that thermal bath, that looks like great fun. I also love the fact that there is a story attached to findin that book. Im going to read The world according to Garp this month which will be my first John Irving book.

Jenners said...

Love the photos ... I want to go to a thermal bath!! And I cannot remember if I read this book or not .. isn't that odd?

Sandra said...

I enjoyed this post very much, my husband and his family are from Hungary. It's so nice to have good memories about where and when you read a book too. I haven't read Irving but I may try this one. Glad you liked it.

Cat said...

I've not yet been to Hungary but my Mum's family comes from the ethnic-Hungarian region in what is now Serbia so I am looking forward to one day.

I too loved this book and found it strange all at once. The caps took me a long time to get used to but I think it's one of those books that, as you say, stays with you for ages after. The homage to male friendship is beautiful and for some reason the mannequin scenes really stood out to me.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jessica - I've read Garp. I didn't like it as much as Owen, but it was still interesting. Irving has a unique voice.

Cat - The caps are tough at first, but after awhile it was like subtitles during a movie, I didn't even notice them.