John Irving | Critical Review by Caryn Fuoroli

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of John Irving.
This section contains 765 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Andrew Rosenheim

Critical Review by Caryn Fuoroli

SOURCE: "In the Family," in The Progressive, Vol. 46, January, 1982, pp. 51-2.

In the following review, Fuoroli offers praise for The Hotel New Hampshire.

Weak writers may repeat themselves in book after book, while great writers, often obsessed, reexamine their subjects persistently; F. Scott Fitzgerald returned to the very rich again and again, and William Faulkner to the psychological blood sports and themes of Mississippi, novel after novel. A world which constantly threatens to inflict violence and sudden death is set against the saving virtues and emotional risks of the family and of art.

After The World According to Garp, John Irving's tragicomic treatment of New England schoolmasters, Viennese prostitutes, and performing bears will prompt nods of recognition rather than gasps of wonder. He has retained and refined his greatest strength—a narrative control so powerful that readers seem to surrender their will. In his new book, he has become more articulate. The Hotel New Hampshire is a compelling novel; Irving's old obsessions become disturbing, while illuminating new experience.

Irving follows the Berry family through three decades and their serial ownership of three hotels. Each is called "The Hotel New Hampshire," although the second is in Vienna and the third in Maine. The narrator, John Berry, describes himself as "the middle child, and the least opinionated." He is the even-handed reflector of his family—of Father's aspirations and Mother's gentle acceptance, and of his four siblings. Frank, the oldest, is fussy in mind and body. Franny is vehement and outwardly sure of every move. John, next in line, is Franny's adoring ally. Lilly and Egg, the smallest sister and brother, in their different ways remain childlike forever.

As a family, the Berrys form a virtually self-enclosed world. Franny explains, "We aren't eccentric, we're not bizarre. To each other … we're as common as rain." And John agrees, "We were just a family. In a family even exaggerations make perfect sense; they are always logical exaggerations, nothing more." As readers we are absorbed into this insular family circle. We understand their logical eccentricities—why Frank preserves and stuffs the corpse of their old dog, Sorrow; how Egg got his name; why they encourage each other to "keep passing the open window."

The family's closeness is a defense against the terrifying and tragic non-Berry world. On one Halloween, Franny is gang raped in the woods near the first Hotel New Hampshire. That Thanksgiving, a visiting doctor announces that Lilly is a dwarf. On Christmas the children's grandfather, Iowa Bob, is scared to death when the dog Sorrow, taxidermied in an attack posture, tumbles out of a closet. While other families celebrate their holidays, the Berrys face new horrors.

Violence is one of those inexplicable horrors which strikes from without. Usually viewed from the perspective of the victim, it is embodied in the icy arrogance of Franny's football hero rapist. And death, like violence, is always an imminent possibility. The plane carrying Mother and seven-year-old Egg to Vienna drops into the Atlantic as suddenly and senselessly as Sorrow fell out of Bob's overstuffed closet.

In the face of this constantly threatening world, the family finds what internal stability it can and explores its internal tensions. Like the Berrys and their mentor, an Austrian nicknamed Freud, Irving brings to the surface our deepest dreams and fears. Incest is not a subterranean theme or a repressed desire, but a fact in John's and Franny's lives. Lilly writes a bestseller called Trying to Grow, but she is tormented by her own limitations as an artist. Similarly, the sudden deaths and physical disabilities which haunt Irving's world are our most frightening, half-conscious thoughts brought to life in his fiction.

With its explicit fears, its atmosphere of inevitable, unpredictable doom. The Hotel New Hampshire is a dark novel, despite its humor. The comedy is not a relief from tragedy but an increasingly desperate means by which the family endures and bounces back.

The novel is at times awkward. The family's heroic response to a terrorist attack in Vienna seems a clumsy plot device which gets the Berrys home and makes them famous. The novel's several tag lines, especially "sorrow floats," are overused, and quickly become aphorisms. Irving has a dangerous tendency to preach. The third Hotel New Hampshire becomes a platform from which his narrator tells us about the value of rape crisis centers, when Irving might have dramatized their importance to much greater effect.

But Irving rarely loses his footing. He has written an uncompromising novel, for he refuses to sentimentalize or evade the most wrenching emotions, and he insists we must cry and laugh at a world we cannot control.

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This section contains 765 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Andrew Rosenheim
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