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the complete review - fiction
Until I Find You
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B- : episodically entertaining, but lumpy and long
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "All in all, this is a wonderfully thought-provoking book. Despite its length and heft (I was afraid of dropping it on my foot), its artistry is so compelling that I'm considering reading it again. How weird is that ?" - Sharon Barrett, Chicago Sun-Times
- "Above all else, though, this is a work of Serious Literature, chiseled onto the page by one of America's most important living authors. And, unfortunately, sometimes it reads like it. Irving can be a masterfully unfussy writer with a fantastic sense of humor, but in these 800 pages he's in no rush to entertain." - Benjamin Svetkey, Entertainment Weekly
- "So what if Jack isn't a very compelling hero or that the book is a challenging 822 pages, stretching ahead seemingly without end ? There are enough stories here to fill at least three normal novels, and no fewer than 117 characters, each one named, fleshed out and with a role to play. There are fantastic evocations of the collective lunacy that takes over people in institutions." - Elena Seymenliyska, The Guardian
- "(I)t's particularly disappointing that Until I Find You proves to be such a flabby belly-flop of a book." - Christian House, Independent on Sunday
- "As always, his writing is enormously readable and accessible. His prose is determinedly straightforward and clear. Irving is a compulsive, wildly inventive storyteller, and the length gives him room not just for Jack's life story but for rollicking synopses of Jack's movies, the plots of Jack's best friend's bizarre-noir novels and various characters' back stories. (...) A writer's mandate, whether working to 19th or 21st century standards, is to be interesting. Anything else reads like self-indulgence -- or like a lack of perspective or editing. Until I Find You, an often stunningly visual novel, is burdened by bloat." - Heller McAlpin, The Los Angeles Times
- "Although Until I Find You is permeated by a keen sense of melancholy, it lacks the controlled sentimentality of Irving's previous work. (...) Although this is an extremely long book, none of the characters is especially well developed, including Jack, who never shakes off an essential blankness." - Natasha Tripney, New Statesman
- "(I)ts celebrated writer still has the ability to create a colorful, all-enveloping world. But the book is emotionally barren, antsy in its execution, and too precious by half." - Joe Neumaier, NY Daily News
- "The middle section contains so much lovely writing and so many comical vignettes that it's with real regret that I say it's utterly gratuitous. It occurs to me that with some really sharp editing (are you listening, Random House ?), there may be two very satisfactory novels to be had here instead of one borderline awful one." - Nan Goldberg, The New York Observer
- "(B)loated and lugubrious (.....) Jack Burns emerges from this book as a passive, curiously vacant fellow about whom it's difficult to care. As for the supporting cast of Until I Find You, it's made up of generic crazies, predators and victims - comic-strip figures, drawn with the author's customary taste for exaggeration and melodrama, but without his usual energy and humor. (...) (I)t also feels as though it had been written on automatic pilot. (...) (A) tedious, self-indulgent and cruelly eye-glazing read." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "It should be interesting to see how real life kicks the slats out from under this narcissistic lad's illusions.And it surely would have been, except that real life misses its appointment with Irving's novel. (...) Until I Find You is an immensely protracted story devoid of any conflict." - Paul Gray, The New York Times Book Review
- "The story gets off to an energetic start as he and his mother scamper through Scandanavian seaports looking for the father, but it quickly becomes bogged down by unnecessary detail." - The New Yorker
- "Irving's performance is uncertain throughout." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
- "At more than 800 pages, Until I Find You takes the crown for the best longest novel of recent years. (...) (I)f the story of Jack Burns, Hollywood star and screenwriter, and his quest to find his father had been a third or even twice again as long, I would have stayed with it." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
- "That a novel about repetition should repeat itself might, in certain circumstances, be excused as a novelistís conceit. When those repetitions are sustained over 824 pages, however, one is forced to conclude that the cause is bad writing of a previously unseen order of magnitude. (...) To write 824 pages this monotonous -- to have chosen always the mediocre word, the unevocative phrase -- must be considered an accomplishment of sorts." - Robert Macfarlane, Sunday Times
- "At 820 pages, the novel is absurdly long. It seems wimpish to complain when six-year-olds can read that much Harry Potter before breakfast; but the writing here is pretty sedate, with little of the sparkle Irving produced in his last book, The Fourth Hand. But its gentle, perplexed hero, with his lost-boy innocence, lodges in the memory." - David Robson, The Telegraph
- "Even so, the book is a page-turner, though that could be another way of saying it rarely arrests your attention - except when it irritates. There's a vein of self-congratulation running through it." - Benjamin Markovits, The Telegraph
- "Itís too damn long and never seems to know when to rein itself in. Naturally, you have to admire Irvingís descriptive talents -- his deft detailing of a plethora of landscapes and cultures. Similarly, its ambitious scope and its manifold questions about the nature of individual identity, all merit praise. But such virtues are undermined by narrative fat. (...) As such, itís a messy sprawl. But I did keep turning the page" - Douglas Kennedy, The Times
- "In its details, the novel can be irritating. The flabby prose might be an attempt to underline the meandering quality of a memoir (...) but reads more like lack of editing. (...) But in its broader vision, Until I Find You is a powerful, occasionally beautiful work and none of its difficulties is incidental." - Chris Moss, Times Literary Supplement
- "There are some brilliant and hilarious passages, but a big problem too: It's hard to get emotionally invested in movie star Jack Burns who, for much of the novel, is acting more than living. (...) It's both sad and comic, full of melancholy and promiscuous sex." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
- "(H)is most erotically fraught work yet. (...) Until I Find You may stymie the reader with its own tactics of emotional distancing. For a story about psychological reckoning -- Jack undergoes five years of intensive therapy to sort the damage done -- it feels oddly reticent." - Benjamin Strong, The Village Voice
- "Irving's latest tale purports to be about Jack Burns (...) but really it's about Jack's penis, which, as a leading character in a novel of this length, has a paralyzingly narrow narrative scope, limited dialogue and no linguistically interesting stream-of-consciousness whatsoever. (...) The story reads as if Irving woke from a recurring nightmare and started dictating compulsively. He's too good a journeyman to have written anything this bad on purpose, and I kept asking myself, "What's he up to ? How's he going to salvage this ?" " - Marianne Wiggins, The Washington Post
- "Denn vor allem diesen Eindruck wird man bei der Lektüre nicht los: Bis ich dich finde wurde mit angehaltenem Atem und zusammengebissenen Zähnen verfaßt." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Until I Find You is the story of Jack Burns.
His father is William Burns, an irresistible (to women), organ-playing man who was never a part of Jack's life, and the first section of the novel recounts then four year-old Jack being dragged around much of northern Europe by his tattoo-artist mother, Alice, apparently on the hunt for William (who remains always a step -- or a port -- ahead of them).
The title suggests -- and this first part reinforces the notion -- that Until I Find You is a quest-tale, and certainly Jack (and even more so, Alice) seem to need to find William in order to become whole.
The trail ends when the next port of call is Australia, which is too far for Alice and William to go.
So she turns tail, and returns to Canada -- and that's pretty much all there is as far as the father-hunt goes until very, very much later in the book.
It's not that his shadow doesn't hang over Jack, however.
Lots of people -- especially women (and girls) -- remember William, and expect the boy to follow in his father's footsteps.
As one girl explains to the young schoolboy
"You're going to be like your dad -- we're all counting on it."
Not being familiar with his father means Jack doesn't really know what's expected of him.
What he does know -- dad hurt his mom by leaving her, dad likes to jump from woman to woman, organ to organ, and place to place, and dad is getting most of his body covered with tattoos -- probably doesn't make him seem someone to emulate.
But Jack doesn't worry about it too much (nor actually does Irving: beyond the woman-bedding aspect, Jack as mini-William (with all that entails) isn't really fully explored) -- and life, especially at his elementary school, where he's one of the few boys, offers mysteries enough.
From day one at St. Hilda's Jack comes under the protective (if not always comfortingly so) influence of Emma Oastler, a sixth grade girl when he starts kindergarten.
Pretty-boy Jack will always attract the ladies -- especially the older ones -- but Emma becomes a rare close (and lifelong) friend, and while she introduces him to many of the ways of the world (and keeps a disturbingly watchful eye -- and hand -- on his penis as he matures), their intimacy is of a different sort.
Sex, however, is a big deal, and Jack is introduced to intercourse at a very tender age -- taken advantage of by an older woman before he's really hit puberty.
(Emma can't exactly set that right, but she does effectively end the abuse.)
The formative experience nevertheless leaves Jack with a hankering for the old ladies -- a few years older than him, at least (though he sleeps around with girls his own age too): "The older woman thing (...) would haunt Jack all his life."
He does become quite the ladies-man, but doesn't manage to find true love, scaring off one girl he believes might be the one for him, drifting away from another.
(Emma, his obvious companion, unfortunately comes with baggage of her own, preventing them from consummating their relationship.)
From a young age Jack acts -- generally playing female roles in the school plays (he's so pretty that he can get away with it).
He grows up to become an actor, too, and continues to play quite a few female (and transvestite) roles even when he's all grown (he's even a Bond girl in one movie, "the one who was killed by a poisonous dart from a cigarette lighter when 007 deduced Jack was a guy"), but it seems more happenstance (i.e. it doesn't seem to signify: Jack doesn't seem to have any gender or sexual orientation issues).
At some point Emma insists: "Jack Burns is a writer, not an actor; he just doesn't know it yet", but there's scant evidence for that, then or later.
Jack stays a (successful) actor -- with an Oscar-winning screenwriting-detour (courtesy of Emma) -- but acting doesn't really seem central to his life either.
He's good at it, and it's a convenient way of making him wealthy (and well-known) and allowing him to have a lot of free time on his hands, but his acting-exploits are only occasionally centre-stage.
(Jack is, of course, a lot like author John Irving: a generation younger, but covering many of the same stations (Exeter, wrestling, diminutive size, famous, etc.).
And there's the whole unknown father-thing, which is apparently also Irving's experience -- but the fictional twist on that isn't quite as successful.)
Until I Find You is full of episodes; many are entertaining and colourful, and in chronologically following Jack's life (with some periods lingered over, other rushed past) it seems to be a character-portrait of the fatherless boy and then man.
But, as the psychiatrist Jack eventually goes to (for years on end), notes, just recounting what happened only gets you so far:
"But the purpose for doing this, Jack, is that when you tell me your life story, you reveal yourself -- at least that's what usually happens, that's what's supposed to happen," Dr. García said.
"I regret that, in your case, you've been a very faithful storyteller -- and a very thorough one, I believe -- yet I don't feel that I know you.
I know what's happened to you.
Do I ever know it -- ad nauseam !
But you haven't revealed yourself, Jack.
I still don't know who you are.
At this point (page 678 !) the reader will have very similar regrets, and wonder whether this isn't Irving venting his own frustration at not being able to make much of a character out of Jack, somebody more than just a person to whom things happen.
Irving does offer a few decent twists, the best of which is Jack learning that mom wasn't exactly truthful -- about much, and especially about that trip to Europe they took when he was a boy.
Jack revisits their ports of call as an adult and learns the truth -- a decent alternate world opening up to him, fairly nicely done.
But it's not enough to get him to chase down dad yet (readers will groan on page 526 to learn that still: "It was not the time to look for his father").
As someone points out to Jack: "It's not hard to find anybody" -- but, despite all indications that he really has nothing better to do (can't form any sort of happy relationship, his career is on autopilot, mom is (eventually) out of the picture, etc), he doesn't just go and get it over with.
Eventually, of course, he does -- though, yet again, he's not the one to take the initiative.
Dad isn't a disappointment -- he's all Jack ever wanted and more (with a few typical Irving-twists; normality would be just too easy) -- but Irving gets quite carried away with that scenario: it's a happy end but an unconvincing resolution.
(Given Irving's own experiences with his lost dad, which seem to have influenced the writing of this book, one has to wonder what he was thinking with the final father-fantasy in Zurich .....)
Cluttered with characters, there's lots of surface and surprisingly little depth to the novel.
There are a few richly realised characters, but even they aren't entirely convincing: Irving never quite seems able to peg Emma (the most interesting character in the book), and tries too hard to fill the story with quirky incidental characters, too many with too much of a (admittedly occasionally relevant) backstory.
There's a fair amount of good storytelling here, but the big story remains unsatisfying.
Until I Find You reads like Irving first wanted to go in one direction, then changed his mind (and course), and then again .....
Jack, in particular -- though he has his charms -- isn't compelling enough (and making him an adored child and then a universally recognised star is an awful lot of pressure to put on a character).
A meandering book, Until I Find You is entertaining enough to make one's way through, a decent enough beach read (attention, though: lots of penis-holding !).
It's a long novel, with a few too many episodes leading nowhere -- and, unfortunately, the book as a whole only appears to have a neat, happy ending: it too leads pretty much nowhere.
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Until I Find You:
Other books by John Irving under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary American fiction under review
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About the Author:
John Winslow Irving, American author, born 1942.
Born in Exeter, New Hampshire he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy.
Author of numerous very successful novels, he first achieved widespread recognition with The World according to Garp.
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© 2005-2012 the complete review
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