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.
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 from15 years to 15 months, feels so lightfooted in comparison. But Irving’s patient working of his dominant metaphor benefits from the book’s gravitas.