John Irving’s The Cider House Rules

by Jess

Spoiler alert!

I started reading The Cider House Rules the same day that I finished Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and I suffered from culture shock through much of the first chapter.  Smith’s prose is light and witty, where Irving’s is heavy — though not ponderous — and it only seemed so dense by comparison.  Once I picked up the rhythm of Irving’s writing, I was able to fall completely into his fictional world, like a cheap romance novel’s half-dressed leading lady swooning into the arms of a heavily-muscled man.

The Cider House Rules is beautiful and measured and deeply affecting.  The chapter “Homer Breaks a Promise,” when Homer leaves the orphanage, shows Dr. Larch struggling to tell Homer goodbye.  The old man hurries into the operating room to begin an autopsy — anything to keep busy.  “He might have told Homer, then, that he loved him very much and that he needed something very active to occupy himself at this moment of Homer’s departure…  He wanted to take Homer Wells in his arms, and hug him, and kiss him, but he could only hope that Homer understood how much Dr. Larch’s self-esteem was dependent on his self-control.”  But Homer pokes his head in to say goodbye, and while the old man’s hands are busy, Homer feels safe to say “I love you.”  “I love you too, Homer,” says Dr. Larch as Homer makes his escape.  “Dr. Larch put his instruments aside; he gripped the operating table for a long time.”  That night, “Dr. Larch just sat at the typewriter, unmoving.  He was composing in his mind the first of many letters he would write to Homer Wells.  He was attempting to gentle his anxieties and calm his thoughts.  Please be healthy, please be happy, please be careful, Wilbur Larch was thinking — the darkness edging in around him.”

Perhaps I would have gotten teary-eyed over this novel regardless of my station in life, but being a mother for the past five months has made me fearful and weepy, and all this talk about orphans and babies and love got to me in a big way.  Maybe I was thinking of my own son leaving me one day (He never will!), but when I finished the chapter at that scene, I had to put down the book for a while, completely overcome.

Irving’s characters are so well drawn, they breathe from the pages.  They struggle; they make choices; they rise and fall.  Irving has said, “The characters in my novels, from the very first one, are always on some quixotic effort of attempting to control something that is uncontrollable — some element of the world that is essentially random and out of control.”

Melony is a good example of his skill.  As a brutish unadoptable orphan, she is distasteful.  Later, when she is on the road in search of Homer, she makes my skin crawl with her bad teeth, her corpulence, her calculating sociopathic violence; she is evil personified.  But when she finally runs into Homer and finds her idealized heroic image of him doesn’t match up with reality, she is broken down and pathetic and pitiable.  She is the one who tells Homer straight and ends up the catalyst for his transformation: “You’ve got your nose in the air — I got that part right.  But you ain’t exactly no missionary.  You’re a creep!  You knocked up somebody you shouldn’t ‘a’ been fuckin’ in the first place, and you couldn’t even come clean about it to your own kid.  Some missionary!  Ain’t that brave.  In my book, Sunshine, that’s a creep.”

Mr. Rose is another great character because he’s likable, he’s charming, but he’s also somehow sinister, a quality which shows itself at the end.  The orphanage staff, darling Nurse Edna and Nurse Angela and poor Mrs. Grogan, had me in stitches and made me want to give them all big hugs.  The orphans, too, are heart-breaking and funny at the same time.  I think it’s hard to write children as cute and hilarious and selfish and, well, real, as children can be, but Irving does it.

Abortion is a primary topic of the novel, although I wouldn’t say it’s a novel about abortion; abortion is simply one of the many struggles the characters have to deal with (Should Wally and Candy have an abortion?  Should Homer follow in Dr. Larch’s footsteps and perform them?  Is it better to follow the law or to save a life, to do an abortion or create an orphan?  How far can you bend the rules before they break?).  It’s clear which side of the issue the novel comes down on, but it doesn’t detract from the story at all if you don’t agree.  There’s a great epigraph by Charlotte Bronte in the beginning: “Conventionality is not morality.  Self-righteousness is not religion.  To attack the first is not to assail the last.”  Jane Eyre and several Dickens works are mentioned repeatedly in The Cider House Rules (Homer repeats to himself the opening passage of David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”), and I’d go so far as to say that Irving’s work is Dickensian itself.

I don’t normally approve of giant time lapses in novels (“What is hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the people who once mattered the most to us are wrapped up in parentheses.”), so when I got to the chapter called “Fifteen Years” I thought, “No, don’t ruin it now!”  But Irving pulled it off well, showing us the resentment and anger that’s been simmering all these years, resurfacing just as we rejoin the story.  Was the ending a bit too perfect?  I went back and forth about it, but I think it ends up with a good balance.  After all, Dr. Larch has been orchestrating the outcome of the story for years, and all that’s left is for Homer to accept his fate, as it were.  Despite all the pain and suffering that came before, it’s the happy ending the characters all deserve.

I saw the film version years ago but remembered nothing of the story, so now I’ll watch it again (and be dissappointed by it, no doubt, though I read that Irving himself worked on the adaptation).  But no botched movie adaptation can ruin this book for me.  These are characters who will stay with me for a very, very long time.