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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Prayer for Owen Meany

John Irving

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

A Prayer for Owen Meany - trade paperback A Prayer for Owen Meany - mass market paperback

Title: A Prayer for Owen Meany
Author: John Irving
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989
Length: 617 pages
Availability: trade paperback - US
mass market paperback - US
A Prayer for Owen Meany - UK
A Prayer for Owen Meany - Canada
A Prayer for Owen Meany - India
Une prière pour Owen - France
Owen Meany - Deutschland
Preghiera per un amico - Italia
Oración por Owen - España

  • A film adaptation of the novel was made in 1998, titled Simon Birch. Bizarrely changing the story (including Owen's feat of heroism), the movie is only vaguely based on the novel, and Irving would not allow his character's name to be (ab)used -- which is why Owen Meany becomes Simon Birch. Even the radiant screen presence of Ashley Judd couldn't save this flick.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : flawed, but a very good read, thoughtful and well done .

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian B- 5/6/1989 Stephen Games
The NY Times B- 8/3/1989 Caryn James
The NY Times Book Rev. C+ 13/3/1989 Alfred Kazin
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/7/1989 Robert Towers
Newsweek C- 10/4/1989 Peter S. Prescott
Salon A- 30/9/1996 Cintra Wilson
Time A- 3/4/1989 R.Z.Sheppard
TLS . 19/5/1989 Wendy Steiner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like Garp it is unnecessarily prolix and self-interrupting, but where Garp rambled to no purpose A Prayer For Owen Meany is rather too perfectly constructed. It is a book for people who want life to be explicable, who can't bear loose ends." - Stephen Games, The Guardian

  • "My advice is to run while you can." - Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek

  • "(T)he thinking behind it all seems juvenile, preppy, is much too pleased with itself." - Alfred Kazin, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Irving delivers a boisterous cast, a spirited storyline and a quality of prose that is frequently underestimated." - R.Z.Sheppard, Time

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:

       We have always enjoyed Irving's solid and humorous style and imaginative ideas, and he does not disappoint here. The novel relates the story of the friendship between the narrator, John Wheelwright, and the diminutive Owen Meany. The story is told from the present day, Wheelwright looking back to his New Hampshire childhood and youth from a self-imposed Canadian exile. Playing carefully with the sequence of how he relates the episodes (overdoing it a bit), Irving allows the story of Owen Meany to unfold. The book starts with a bang: Owen kills Johnny's beautiful mother with an errant foul ball. From there he takes us back to the earlier years of their friendship.
       From the beginning we are told that Owen is a hero -- indeed, we are told that he is the reason the narrator believes in God. That's an awful lot of pressure to put on a little guy, and naturally we expect a lot from this character. Irving does not choose the most predictable route to martyrdom for his hero (for which he is to be commended), and he takes his time in building up a fine, big book around him. In the end he loads up a bit too much on those small shoulders, with too much hokey religion and fatalism, but it is an entertaining enough ride along the way.
       The town and the times are well recreated, and the characters are an interesting bunch. All of Johnny's family, from the wild cousins to the stepfather and the grandmother, and Owen's subdued family too are good characters, and only rarely does Irving try to do too much with them. As usual, Irving is modernly Dickensian, with touches of humor, tragedy, humanity, and a great deal of the absurd in his characters and situations.
       There are numerous clever -- and a few less clever -- episodes and anecdotes throughout the novel. Owen's speech, all CAPITALIZED, is not as irritating as we were led to believe -- indeed, only the religion and some of the politics were less than well-handled (but they are always notoriously difficult to get a grip on). It is, in part, a book about Viet Nam, and the American involvement there, acceptable only because Irving takes a relatively original approach to involving his characters in the war. It is also a story about religion and finding God, an idea so incomprehensible and absurd to us that we can not comment. Nevertheless, Irving manages to be less than completely off-putting in this regard, so there must be some plausibility to how he handles it.
       The story has some fine twists and turns and is generally very well-related. We know the outcome, but Irving still keeps our attention as to exactly how things will turn out. We did find the ending somewhat anti-climactic, and some of the smaller devices were annoying (the predictable tombstone, etc.) and not everything works, but it is still a mighty fine drawn-out read.

       A major regret we have is that we think Irving underestimates his own estimable talents, here as elsewhere: he should be willing to risk more. He is a very gifted writer, and a smart man -- he can and should shoot higher. Owen Meany is a decent, big, generally very enjoyable read, but Irving is capable of more.

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A Prayer for Owen Meany: Reviews: John Irving: Simon Birch:
  • The Simon Birch listing from the excellent IMDb site, with many links re. the movie (an exceptionally free adaptation of Irving's book).
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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