My senior year of high school, I did not do my summer reading. I was a straight-A student taking two college courses and two AP-level courses, and every year up until that point I not only read the summer books but took notes. For some reason, however, I read just enough snippets to do the project assigned. I managed to get an A on the Owen Meany component because I was clever enough to write his letter to another character in all caps.
I actually wasn’t impressed by John Irving’s first 50 pages at that point, and I think the only thing making me try again was hating to admit I never read it. This time around was slow going to start, but as I got further into the book I was very impressed with it.
This is an extremely difficult review to write, because the book has so much depth and richness that I can’t begin to accurately represent it, and don’t want to give anything away. A Prayer for Owen Meany is told in first person by Johnny Wheelwright looking back on his life, primarily intertwined with that of his best friend Owen Meany.
Owen is special for reasons both immediately obvious and hidden. He never seems to go through puberty, retaining a diminutive statute and a high-pitched voice that Irving writes entirely in capital letters. He is original in his ideas and outlook. Most importantly, he has a deep faith, and a growing conviction over time that God has a definite purpose for him.
The narrative is almost spiral in nature; the overall framework is chronological, but since it is told retrospectively, Johnny keeps going back and forth to revisit events described before, and mention things that are future knowledge. There are also snippets of his present life woven in, often focusing on his current attitude towards religion, love, and politics. He struggles throughout the book with his personal conflict between faith and doubt. Once you get used to this structure, it is very successful, because that’s how memories really work. It also shows which elements of Johnny’s life story are most influential to him, and those that he circles back to, like the sagamore’s totem or the armadillo, become symbolic under this treatment. The only parts that dragged were those in the present; John’s life seems to have stagnated at the end of the events he is describing, so it makes sense in a way that he lives in the past.
There is also a great sense of fate, everything happening in a specific way for a specific reason, that is present throughout but emphasized by Owen’s convictions. He believes that there is no such thing as a coincidence. In many ways this reminded me of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and the increased suspense as the inevitable draws near and you can see all the pieces finally fitting together.
The book truly is a masterpiece, and I’m glad I stuck with it. Even if I never read it again in its entirety, it has joined the ranks of books which I could dip into on occasion, and whose ending would never fail to bring tears to my eyes.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is on both the Guardian and 1001 Books lists.