Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Corner: The Cider House Rules by John Irving

I know, this is another one that I'm years behind on. However, like The Handmaid's Tale, it's a better late than never kind of situation; if you've never read The Cider House Rules, you really ought to pick it up because it is quite frankly amazing.

I have always been a John Irving fan; my father's favourite book in the whole world is A Prayer for Owen Meany, and as a little book nerd of course I encountered it (earlier than I probably should have). I think Irving has a lovely style and a real knack for characters - he takes his time with them, letting the stories sort of unfold naturally. I have read a couple of his other books, including the horrifically under-rated, laugh-out-loud hilarious The Water-Method Man, which I recommend more highly than anything. It's a relatively short read and seriously, you will be crying with laughter from about page three.

Anyway, Cider House. A friend of mine has been telling me to read this for years, insisting I will like it because "it's about abortion". I knew one of the characters was an abortion doctor, but didn't think it could possibly be more than a subplot. But she was right - it is about abortion. Partially, of course. Really what it's about is rules: the rules we make for each other, the rules we find it acceptable to break, and the way the rules change in different situations, for different people. The story challenges a lot of rules - from social norms to laws - in a powerful but simultaneously gentle sort of way. Irving forces his characters (and readers) to examine the reasons for rules and for breaking them.

The book is, in short, about an orphanage run by the aging Dr. Larch, who takes in pregnant women overnight to deliver "an orphan or an abortion" - their choice - before sending them on their way. One of the orphans, Homer Wells, has a hard time getting adopted and soon accepts that he belongs at the orphanage, learning medicine from Dr. Larch. But the two men differ on their opinion of abortion (or "the Lord's work" as Larch calls it) and Homer eventually rejects the destiny Larch has set out for him, and leaves the orphanage with a beautiful young couple to work in their apple orchard and learn the rules in the outside world.

I can't really tell you any more about the plot - anyway, the plot is kind of beside the point. It's meandering and strange and really just background for Irving's true strengths as a writer: characters, themes and setting. This book could not have taken place anywhere other than coastal Maine, and the descriptions are totally evocative of that strange place. I'm telling you guys, this book is amazing. If it wasn't about abortion, they would teach it in high school writing classes. It is both technically perfect and emotionally strong.

Most of all I loved how Irving dealt with the abortion issue. His characters are sometimes preachy, but the story never is. It ends about twenty years before Roe v. Wade but the legality takes a back seat to the morality of it; the arguments and situations could easily apply today. I loved how the story even had sympathy for the back-alley butcher, whom Larch goes to see (and condemn) for her shoddy, life-threatening abortions. "At least I'm doing something!" she says. Indeed.

Larch's simple philosophy - that it is best to be of use - is probably a bit utilitarian for some people to accept as an argument backing up the availability of abortion. But I think the stronger driving force of Larch's character is his shameful early life, and his idea that he himself once made a bad sexual decision, and therefore it is not his right to judge the sexual decisions of others. The doctor is a humanizing element in the orphanage. He is simply a flawed person trying to do what is best - as is Homer Wells, whose experience with a young apple picker who has been the victim of incest neatly mirrors Larch's own awakening, in the back alley doctor's waiting room, with a young woman who has been impregnated by her father. A lifetime has made no difference in the demand for abortion, the reasons, the desperation. Irving gently, implicitly reminds us that the need will always exist - it is up to us whether we "play God" by making that decision for a woman.

I loved this book - in case that isn't clear. I think it is not only totally compelling, I also believe it provides some of the best arguments for abortion provision I have ever encountered. Not just legal abortion, mind, but actively providing abortions or ensuring women have access to them. This one gets ten fetus cookies out of ten.

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