Book Review: THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE, by John Irving

To my knowledge, there is no other author quite like John Irving (and if you know of one, by all means, tell me!). His novels are vast, often following the characters through their entire lives, and they are varied--Irving presents his characters with some of the most original conflicts of any author I've read, and his characters themselves, oh!, they are so lovely, so complete. And he is funny.

In this case, I turn to the back of the book for a summary, since it does so well. I give you THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE:
The first of my father's illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels.

So says John Berry, son of a hapless dreamer, brother to a cadre of eccentric siblings, and chronicler of the lives lived, the loves experienced, the deaths met, and the myriad strange and wonderful times encountered by the family Berry. Hoteliers, pet-bear owners, friends of Freud (the animal trainer and vaudevillian, that is), and playthings of mad fate, they "dream on" in a funny, sad, outrageous, and moving novel by the remarkable author of A Widow For One Year and The Cider House Rules.
"Funny, sad and outrageous" just about sums it up.

Irving is a master of recurring themes--throughout the book certain things come back, over and over (the bear, Sorrow, Freud and "the other" Freud), like refrains between the verses of the Berry family, changing slightly as the story and family ages, acting as the support beams for the rest of the plot. In fact, with this book, the fifth Irving novel I've read, I noticed that Irving repeats themes from novel to novel--the dressmaker's dummy, the "not growing" (Owen Meany, Lilly Berry)--thus giving his books a feeling of continuity.

Perhaps the only fault I could find with NEW HAMPSHIRE was that, as it was written early in Irving's career, the writing isn't as tight as in, say, Irving's second newest novel, A Widow For One Year (his newest being Until I Find You, whose paperback arrival I am anxiously awaiting)--and that isn't much of a criticism, not when you consider that his early books are still a sight better than most. In NEW HAMPSHIRE, he just doesn't seem quite at home in his style yet, and it's only knowing that Irving is so good now that makes me notice.

With that in mind, I'd suggest you start with The Cider House Rules or A Widow For One Year if you're new to John Irving. If you're a veteran, well, dive right in--THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE does not disappoint!


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