John Irving’s The Cider House Rules sows a humane a seed.

Irving's Cider House

In The Cider House Rules, gruff yet kindly Dr. Wilbur Larch runs an orphanage in remotest 1930s Maine, where he also performs illegal abortions for desperate women. He gives them an abortion or an orphan, as they wish. His protégé Homer Wells, an orphan he retained, cannot bring himself to end fetal life. Wells takes leave to explore the world and ends up working at a coastal orchard; he becomes a bridge between its owners and the migrant workers who arrive every fall to harvest apples.

I decided finally to read John Irving’s 1985 novel because, loving the 1999 movie made from it, I’ve so thoroughly adopted Irving’s great metaphor. Cider house rules are strictures imposed by an unknowing majority on a minority group; it works for bitter corporate cubicle dwellers, farmers, and any class in between. In the novel, almost none of the pickers who live in the orchard’s bunkhouse, where they also press cider, can even read the typed rules Homer annually posts. Anyway, they have their own rules, they tell him. Soon Homer’s  personal distaste for abortion will be tested by their need. And his love for a girl causes him to break other rules concerning marriage and fidelity.

A defiantly old-fashioned storyteller, Irving employs intricate plots that impress and often reward. I found The Cider House Rules a slog at times, wading through so much summary and so many years in its 560 pages; I could see why the movie, in reducing its narrative timeline from 15 years to 15 months, feels so lightfooted in comparison. But the book’s gravitas enables Irving’s patient working of his dominant metaphor.

John Irving with his Oscar

[Irving nabs Oscar for the screenplay.]

To Irving, more is better. His doorstopper yarns explode like a brick heaved into a plate glass bookstore window; his fans await them and adore them. Maybe that’s because of his novels’ delightful heightening, a fabulist quality. This may flow from Charles Dickens’s melodramatic influence on Irving—who considers himself a realist, by the way. And actually once I accept Irving’s odd situations, what occurs in them doesn’t harm his spell. His characters, if broadly drawn, act believably, though their inner lives often go missing in action. Irving possesses imagination, so I presume this is an instance of how event sequence seems hostile to lingering, to interiority. Paradoxically this novel of wacky people and situations offers a feast of ideas.

While I’m now afraid to reread The World According to Garp, which intoxicated me in my immersion back in June 1978, for fear it will feel similarly ponderous, I do plan to reread A Prayer for Owen Meany. It shares with The Cider House Rules a concern with human goodness in conflict with tyranny. A tyranny driven by extremists who sway or attack the majority. Yet Irving gives abortion opponents their fair due in Cider House‘s pro-choice narrative. Ending any life isn’t trivial, and Irving examines this dilemma from several angles.

A brave book, honest and therefore inescapably political, The Cider House Rules shines with humane truths. And having at last read it, I can use Irving’s metaphor about unfair rules with a clearer conscience.

[Irving explained his literary aesthetic and working method in a fascinating interview with The Paris Review.]

Cider House Movie Poster

[Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron frolick on the movie poster.]

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